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Arkyd-100 in orbit
Planetary Resources is using crowdfunding to raise at least $1 million to launch a version of its Arkyd-100 spacecraft designed for use by the public. (credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.)

Planetary Resources makes a giant leap in space crowdfunding

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The space community is full of discussions about propellants: solid versus liquid, cryogenic versus storable, electric versus chemical. There is, though, arguably a more fundamental propellant for the space industry, and one that is scarcer than almost any rocket fuel: money. Without cash flow of some kind, there won’t be any propellant flowing through engines.

“We were totally overwhelmed by the amount of interest we had in what we were doing,” Lewicki said, which prompted them to consider crowdfunding to tap into that interest.

Raising funding has been difficult for space ventures over the years, given their high capital costs and limited interest, at best, from more conventional sources of investment, like venture capital firms. A few companies have, within the last year or two, turned their attention to a new form of fundraising called “crowdfunding” that allows them to raise money from individuals in exchange for rewards and, eventually, equity in those companies (see “Crowdfunding space”, The Space Review, April 15, 2013). Crowdfunding has, until now, looked best suited for small projects, but the impressive results of a campaign that started last week suggest it can do much more.

Space telescopes and “space selfies”

What has changed people’s minds about crowdfunding’s potential is a project that kicked off last Wednesday. Planetary Resources, Inc., the startup company that announced plans last year to develop a series of spacecraft to prospect and eventually extract resources from near Earth asteroids (see “Planetary Resources believes asteroid mining has come of age”, The Space Review, April 30, 2012), rolled out a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise $1 million to build and launch a space telescope in its Arkyd-100 line of small spacecraft.

At first glance, Planetary Resources’s use of crowdfuding to fly a spacecraft seems like an odd choice. The company is backed by wealthy investors, including former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi (who flew to space not once but twice as a space tourist), Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Surely these people can spare a million dollars or more to fund a spacecraft?

However, Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki said the company was inspired to take on this approach given the public support they received since announcing their long-term asteroid mining plans over a year ago. “We were totally overwhelmed by the amount of interest we had in what we were doing,” he said in an interview last week. That interest included thousands of job applications and unsolicited investment offers. “We kicked a number of ideas around with what we could do with it. More and more, as we started to talk to people in the community, this idea took shape.”

The idea is more than simply asking people to donate money to build a satellite. Planetary Resources is offering a range of options for access to this spacecraft based on how much an individual donates. Starting at $25, a donor can get a “Space Selfie”: a small screen on the spacecraft will display an image provided by the donor, and an external camera mounted on the spacecraft will snap a photo of that image and the spacecraft, with the Earth and space serving as a backdrop.

Higher donation levels make use of the Arkyd spacecraft’s main telescope and camera. A $99 donation will give five minutes of observing time on the spacecraft to student and spacecraft teams, with the ability to join these teams and receive updates on their research. A $200 “Private Astronomer” donation gives an individual the ability to take an image of any celestial object (excluding the Sun). A $5,000 “Education Ambassador” donation gives a school extended access to the telescope plus additional educational tools.

The Arkyd-100 will have relative modest imaging capabilities. The telescope, with a 20-centimeter aperture, will have a limiting V magnitude of 19, and will be equipped with a standard set of filters, Lewicki said. “We have our specific uses of what we would want to do with it, but we didn’t really want to presume what others might be interested in,” he said. He added that the spacecraft is not designed to take images of the Earth.

As of early Monday, the project was more than two-thirds of the way to its goal, with more than $685,000 pledged from more than 7,200 backers.

The range of donation options is intended to allow anyone interested in the project to be a part of it, whether they’re interested in using the spacecraft for astronomical observations or simply think it’s an interesting idea. The “Space Selfie,” with its low cost, was designed for that latter group. “How can we make this fun and exciting and engaging for the non-technical person, a person that’s kind of passionate about space, or at least a little bit excited about it, but doesn’t want to consider some astronomical question?” Lewicki said. “It’s something that, as we’ve been talking with people about it, everyone thinks it’s a really cool idea.”

Lewicki said that prior to the formal rollout of the crowdfunding campaign last Wednesday in Seattle. The performance of that effort to date does indicate that the “Space Selfie,” and the project in general, are indeed cool ideas. As this article was prepared for publication early Monday, the project was more than two-thirds of the way to its goal, with more than $685,000 pledged from more than 7,200 backers. That included more than 2,800 people at the $25 “Space Selfie” level, and over 1,800 interested in slightly more expensive printed or high-resolution versions of it. It also includes, though, 17 backers at the highest pledge level, the $10,000 “Grand Benefactor and Education Ambassador,” whose benefits range from an invitation to the spacecraft launch to having an asteroid discovered by the spacecraft named after the donor.

Implications for space crowdfunding

Planetary Resources is using Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform that uses an “all or nothing” model: if a project doesn’t meet its goal by the deadline, it receives none of the funding pledged, no matter how close it was to its goal. Planetary Resources thus can’t declare success yet with its project, but with a June 30 deadline, it appears they’re well on their way of meeting, and likely considerably exceeding, that goal.

If they do meet their goal, it will be far and away the biggest space-related crowdfunding success to date. Previous efforts, like last year’s ArduSat smallsat project and LiftPort’s space elevator technology development project, each raised a little over $100,000. Earlier this year, Golden Spike sought to raise $240,000 to fund design studies and outreach plans for its planned commercial human lunar landing missions. That effort, though, raised less than $20,000 (Golden Spike used another crowdfunding platform, Indiegogo, that does not use Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing approach, so they did not go away empty-handed.)

So what explains Planetary Resources’s success? In a panel on crowdfunding at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) last month in San Diego, Steve Jorgenson, a partner in the consulting company Space Finance Group, said successful crowdfunding efforts, in space or elsewhere, have three key attributes: the quality of the rewards offered to donors, the amount of “social capital” the company has in social media, and the ability to make an emotional connection with potential donors. “People are giving money to people when they’re doing crowdfunding,” he said. “They’re not giving money to a company. They’re giving money to you and your effort.”

One of the best experiences Lewicki said he’s had in his career was his involvement on Mars missions, being able to tell a spacecraft what to do and to see the results. “We’ll be able to give anyone who wants it that experience. That’s the thing I’m super excited about.”

The Planetary Resources effort appears to meet all three of those factors. Certainly the unique rewards offered by the company, like the “Space Seflie” images and the ability to use even a modest space telescope, have attracted considerable interest. The company has also been making extensive use of social media to promote the campaign. Moreover, it had a big rollout of the effort at a May 29 event in Seattle that featured celebrities like Bill Nye and Star Trek actor Brent Spiner.

As for the emotional connection, Lewicki said last week he hopes the thrill of being able to participate in a mission—to actually control a spacecraft, for those who select those reward levels—will excite the public. “As much as I enjoy doing space exploration, I enjoy sharing it as well,” he said. One of the most incredible experiences he’s had in his career, he said, was his involvement on the Mars Exploration Rover and Phoenix Mars Lander missions, being able to tell a spacecraft what to do and to see the results. “We’ll be able to give anyone who wants it that experience. That’s the thing I’m super excited about.”

At ISDC, prior to the announcement of Planetary Resources’s crowdfunding plans, Jorgenson said crowdfunding was useful for small projects, and for bridging the gap between initial “friends and family” fundraising for a startup and somewhat larger investment by individual “angel” investors. However, he was skeptical that crowdfunding for space projects could raise large sums of money. “If you aren’t selling a video game, a 3-D printer, or some really cool tech gadget, I would say don’t even dream” of raising millions of dollars with crowdfunding, he said.

Planetary Resources seems well on its way to raising at least $1 million and perhaps more. Lewicki said that if they just meet their $1-million goal, the company would use the spacecraft for its own technology demonstration tests and observations in addition to those observations requested by donors. (The spacecraft is one of several in the Arkyd-100 class of Earth-orbiting spacecraft the company plans to develop and launch in the next few years.) “But, it’s possible there’s enough interest in the campaign that it could take up most of the resources of the satellite,” he said, “and if it’s that successful, we’ll just keep building more.”

So as Planetary Resources moves towards their $1-million goal and beyond, it appears they have found a way to tap the public for funding unlike any previous space venture. Many companies are no doubt eagerly watching to see how they can duplicate that success to provide the propellant needed to launch their own space ventures.