Friday, June 28, 2013

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope

About a month ago, Planetary Resources—the company that caused quite a stir a while back when announced its intention to mine asteroids—created a Kickstarter campaign. Their intent with it was not to make money—looking at the investors at the company’s website, they probably do okay in that area—but to offer the public access to one of their small space telescopes expected to launch in 2015, called the Arkyd-100. Since the telescope is intended for the public, the company is asking for one million dollars to crowd fund it.

While this idea seems a little far fetched at first—after all, what can one million dollars buy in an industry that already operates on billions—but if anyone has a chance to pull this off, it is Planetary Resources. Since the company does not need to design the telescope from the ground up, “simply” re-purpose one of their already existing designs, they can send it up with their own fleet of asteroid hunting space telescopes. So, in essence, the team at Planetary Resources offered us the opportunity to hitch a ride with them to space. This, I think, is pretty cool, and apparently I am not the only want thinking that. Twenty days into the Kickstarter campaign, the Arkyd-100 space telescope had surpassed the one million dollars mark, not only giving the project a clear, green light but also marking a significant milestone in citizen science.

First of all, the Arkyd is a wonderful little “toy” with great potential. This trashcan-sized space telescope will be able to see a great many objects in space simply because of its location. The Arkyd will orbit the Earth at a proposed 350 kilometers altitude, which will free it from the distorting effects of the atmosphere and any light pollution. Its high altitude will offer crystal clear images of the planets, nebulae, stars, and even large asteroids that would have been unimaginable with a ground-based telescope. Think about the Arkyd as a mini Hubble, but with public access, and that is huge! For the first time in history, researchers, students of all ages, and even private individuals will have access to an orbiting telescope, which will not only have tremendous scientific implications but also act as a fantastic outreach program. Thousands, if not millions of young minds in classrooms all around the world will be able to connect to the Arkyd—the luckier ones even control it—and be amazed by the beauty of the universe from a point of view few had seen before. Imagine how many future engineers and scientists will be inspired by their first hand experience with the Arkyd! I believe this mini telescope is a truly remarkable opportunity to promote science and education for the masses, and that brings me to my last point.

In times when funding for NASA’s educational programs and other science outreach organizations are at risk of being cut to the bone (if you have not heard about it, read more here and here), the successful funding of the Arkyd space telescope sends a powerful message to decision-makers all over. 1.3 million dollars—and still counting!—is a heck of a lot of money, and to get that amount you need a very large group of passionate individuals who are willing to put their hard-earned cash where their hearts are. I know it is not representative, but the sheer number of people who turned up to support this project—and I do not mean only the people who donated but also celebrities and internet personalities who stood up and promoted it—is a clear indication that the average person does indeed care about the future of space exploration, and this makes me cautiously optimistic.

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