REDMOND, Wash. – Three years ago, Planetary Resources raised more than $1.5 million on Kickstarter to build a space telescope that would let users snap selfies from orbit. Today, the company says it can’t follow through on the project – and is offering full refunds to its 17,614 backers.
“It’s a decision that we make with a heavy heart,” Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, told GeekWire during a visit to the company’s Redmond headquarters.
Lewicki said the support received during the Kickstarter campaign exceeded their wildest expectations, but it wasn’t enough to fund everything that needed to be done to turn the promised system into reality.
“We evaluated a lot of different opportunities with businesses, with educational institutions, with different outlets,” he said. “What we didn’t find, since the campaign closed a few years ago, was the follow-on interest to take it from a project and scale it into a fully funded mission. … We’re going to wind down the project and bring it to a close.”
The project would have set aside an Arkyd 100 space telescope for public use. Users would have been given opportunities to take pictures of targets on Earth or celestial objects (other than the sun).
There was also supposed to be a built-in display screen that could show a video or still image in a spacecraft camera’s field of view. For $25, Kickstarter backers could have the telescope take a picture of Earth with their own picture in the foreground – hence the term “space selfie.” More than 7,200 people signed up for that option.
Twenty-seven backers went for a $10,000 package that included tickets to the telescope’s launch and lots of other goodies.
Planetary Resources has readied two Arkyd 6 prototype spacecraft for launch in the coming months, and it’s working on a constellation of Arkyd 100 telescopes that should go into orbit in the 2018-2019 time frame. But those telescopes are designed for thermal infrared and hyperspectral Earth observation, not for space selfies.
Kickstarter spokesman David Gallagher told GeekWire that there have been a few cases of campaigns where backers were given refunds – including last year’s case involving CastAR, a company that decided to postpone shipments of its augmented-reality glasses.
“This is something that we encourage,” Gallagher said. “By its nature, our system is one where some projects will fail, and we try to be very upfront about that. … We’re glad that they’re responding in a really responsible way.”
Planetary Resources said it would send each backer an email with instructions for receiving a refund.
Even though the space selfies are no-go, Planetary Resources did follow through on one of the Kickstarter campaign’s stretch goals: the creation of software that would help users hunt for asteroids. The Asteroid Data Hunter app was developed in cooperation with NASA and other partners.
Another citizen-science project, Asteroid Zoo, was created in partnership with Zooniverse but is currently on hiatus. Oxford astronomer Chris Lintott, the principal investigator for Zooniverse, said the team behind Asteroid Zoo is working on the data.
Update for 9:45 a.m. PT May 26: Thanks to Chris Lintott for helping us clarify the status of Asteroid Zoo.