Picture an optical telescope, a really good optical telescope, and you have to think big. The most powerful consumer-grade models often stand taller than their operators. The grand, institutionally owned ones are hidden beneath giant domes above the clouds on mountaintops. The world's best, the Hubble Space Telescope, is as big as a school bus and sits out in orbit, while its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be roughly the size of a Boeing 737.
What, then, could a telescope smaller than a trash can possibly do? Quite a lot, as it turns out -- if you can get it outside of the Earth's pesky atmosphere, that is. Planetary Resources plans to take rocks floating aimlessly in the solar system and turn them into valuable commodities. But, before we get there, the company hopes to revolutionize space exploration in the same way that 3D printing and microfunding have revolutionized manufacturing. Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis chatted with us, telling us why the company made the unusual decision to put its first orbital optical telescope up for grabs on Kickstarter.
To ever have a hope of being a viable business, Planetary Resources needs asteroids. In the grand scheme of things, these asteroids are tiny and, in the blackness of space, they're hard to see. So, logically, if Planetary Resources wants to be successful, it needs telescopes. Good ones, and lots of them. Since there just aren't that many available for general use, the company built its own, the Arkyd 100, designed and crafted by many of the sharpest scientists and engineers responsible for landing the last four Mars rovers on the Red Planet.
"These are the world's most powerful private space telescopes," said Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources (and also well-known for his work with XPRIZE). "Twenty years ago, these would have cost $100 million or more and fit in the space shuttle. Now, these space telescopes -- using the most advanced AI, robotics, nano-materials and so forth -- are something you can pick up."
He means physically pick up, as in with your hands. The Arkyd 100 type of telescope, of which ARKYD is the first example, weighs just about 35 pounds and is about a foot and a half tall. (Yes, the name is a nod to Arakyd Industries, a major manufacturer in the Star Wars universe responsible for building the Empire's exploration droids. Please go ahead and give yourself +20 nerd points if you knew that already.) The scope is surprisingly small, tinier even than some scale models of the Hubble Space Telescope we've seen. Still, it's powerful enough to resolve images of less than one arcsecond, a measure of how small a slice of the sky it can manage. That's comparable to the best terrestrial observatories, but far short of the 0.1-arcsecond (or better) Hubble.
The telescope (of which Planetary Resources will build many) was designed to hunt for resource-rich floating hunks of rock, to "prospect and claim" as Diamandis puts it. But, the quality of the optics means it could, in theory, do a whole lot more than dig for gold. So, as other researchers started reading about these scopes, they started asking if they might be able to buy one -- or at least use one. Diamandis and Planetary Resources decided they'd open it up even further.
"We decided to take one of the telescopes off of our production line," Diamandis told us, adding the plan is to make it available for use by anybody who has the inclination. "We want to change the model of space exploration and empower the public to do this versus just a few key researchers." That happens via the Kickstarter-funded launch of the first Arkyd 100 telescope, currently called ARKYD, which is expected to go into orbit by August 2015. And, since the company has already done all the heavy lifting for design and development of the scope, Diamandis says the company can offer access very inexpensively:
We've invested tens of millions of dollars into buying down the cost of the hardware and demonstrating the system. The public is going to benefit in getting the incremental cost of the hardware. Part of it is giving back, and part of it is allowing the public to get involved in this epic expedition.
That million bucks raised via Kickstarter, then, is intended basically to cover the raw cost of the launch, to get the first scope up into orbit and to let people try it out, whether for research or just for fun. "This is all about trying to get the public to be personally involved in space ... If there's enough interest, we'll launch not one, but two or three and get a constellation of these up there."
And what shall we name that constellation? Perhaps we've just stumbled across the next stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign.