Things you can see with space telescopes: asteroids, stars, supernovae, other planets, comets, nebulae, black holes (sort of), cosmic microwave background radiation and so on. All worthy subjects, sure, but admit it: what you really want is a snap of your smiling mug, floating through the cold, cold vacuum hundreds of miles above the Earth‘s surface. Can’t someone make a telescope that does that?
Meet ARKYD, pronounced “ahrk-kid” according to its Kickstarter page, a “technologically advanced” orbital telescope funded by the people, for the people that, among other probably more important things, can take “space selfies” — a picture of an image of you displayed on a tiny viewscreen attached to ARKYD as it orbits the planet — then beam them back to you via ground stations for social network bragging rights. How much for your very own selfie? $25 gets the job done.
Think of the display LCD on the back of your digital camera. Like that, only in outer space, with a tiny appendage positioned above and behind that screen to support a camera that might just make you famous (you know, like in your household or something). Yes, it’s a bit gimmicky, but then you have to pay the bills. And what a bill: ARKYD’s Kickstarter tab is $1 million, though nearly $400,000 of that’s already pledged with 31 days still to go; the project went live yesterday, May 29.
What really makes ARKYD unique, though, is its crowdfunding as well as crowd-using angle — or as Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of project sponsor Planetary Resources puts it in the video below, “An idea to bring space within reach for everyone.” Besides the selfie shtick, ARKYD will be capable of scanning space for potentially hazardous asteroids, examining distant galaxies or just poking around in our own solar backyard. It’s really the first step in Planetary Resources’ long-term goal to develop techniques for mining asteroids to expand the Earth’s natural resource base. Think of ARKYD as phase one.
But what does that mean, giving the masses’ control of an orbital telescope? How do you give potential millions access to a highly specialized, not-exactly-cheap scientific device? Short answer: you don’t. Instead, you establish pledge levels associated with telescope time: $99 guarantees you five minutes to look at whatever you like, and, well, it looks like five minutes is where things top out on the Kickstarter page. You can pay more for pictures developed from “up to 30 minutes of exposure time,” presumably at the longer end of that range to capture fainter objects, but that’s about it. The higher pledge levels — and they roll on up to any of 50 “Grand Benefactor and Education Ambassador” spots at $10,000 apiece — basically add prestige perks, from packages of observation time (“Buy five, get the sixth one…okay, not really”) to full-size desktop models of ARKYD (potentially for use as a teaching tool) to an invitation to sign the spacecraft pre-launch (as well as your name etched on the spacecraft and visible in every selfie), an asteroid named after you (once discovered by the telescope) and tickets to the actual launch event.
ARKYD consists of a large main optical cylinder, deployable solar panels, a specialized communications antenna, the onboard screen and the camera arm. It’s surprisingly light at just 33 pounds, about 17 inches tall fully deployed, and uses about 50 watts of electricity (analogous to your average old-school incandescent household lightbulb). The telescope will capture 150 selfies a day and run 15 astronomical observations (the rest of the time presumably given over to Planetary Resources activities). Planetary Resources says it’ll also offer a web and mobile app to facilitate uploading and retrieval of ARKYD photos, allow folks to get updates on the progress of the satellite and follow a countdown timer until ARKYD’s launch.
If any of that sounds compelling enough to pull $10 (or up to $10,000) from your wallet, be sure you read the “Risks and challenges” section tucked away at page bottom, which begins: “Due to the nature of this project, which is bigger and more complicated than the average Kickstarter project, there are more risks and challenges involved, and there are a few extra considerations in addition to those provided on Kickstarter’s website.” Some of those challenges include: fixing on a final spacecraft model, finding a spacecraft to “ride-share” the telescope into orbit, launch delays and the launch itself going haywire or failing outright.
Otherwise who doesn’t find the notion of crowdfunding space exploration — even something as relatively low-key as an orbital space telescope — incredibly cool? As they say, think of the kids. I remember watching the first space shuttle launches, sometimes on old-school rabbit ear TVs rolled into classrooms, while in elementary school in the 1980s. I would have done anything, back then, for five minutes to play around with something as sophisticated as this.