SAN FRANCISCO — When a group of graduate students at Cornell University needed to raise $30,000 to build tiny, free-flying satellites to test in low Earth orbit, they turned to Kickstarter.
Although the popular crowd funding website is better known for supporting documentary film producers and comic book designers than aerospace engineers, the KickSat campaign brought in $74,586 in 60 days.
That success is enabling the Cornell students to build hundreds of Sprites, satellites built on microchips that weigh only 5 grams. They plan to pack the Sprites inside a triple cubesat scheduled for launch in November on Space Exploration Technologies’ third mission to ferry cargo to the international space station.
“It worked out extraordinarily well,” said Zachary Manchester, the aerospace engineering graduate student who leads the KickSat project. Before the KickSat campaign, the Cornell students were struggling to pay for hardware. After the Kickstarter campaign provided money to build the miniature satellites, the Cornell team was selected to receive a free ride into orbit through NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, which seeks rides for university science and technology missions.
Some of the Space Projects Seeking Crowd Funding
ArduSat: Contributors can design and run space-based
applications and steer a cubesat’s on-board cameras.
Ecuadorian Orbital Webcam: Support for NEE-01 Pegasus
effort to monitor near-Earth objects with on-board video
Golden Spike: Effort to design and build lunar landers and
Received as of April 12: $11,922
KickSat: Mission to launch hundreds of tiny Sprite satel¬
lites in a triple cubesat.
SkyCube: Cubesat to capture Earth images and Tweet mes¬
sages from space, before inflating a large balloon.
Synergy Moon: Support for a Google Lunar X Prize team
developing robotic spacecraft to send to the Moon.
Uwingu: Business to develop a private-sector funding
stream for space exploration, research and education.
KickSat is one of a handful of space projects that received an enthusiastic reception on crowd funding websites, which usually retain a small percentage of the money raised for each project in exchange for publicity and social media support. Other successful Kickstarter campaigns include SkyCube, which garnered $116,890 for a cubesat designed to broadcast messages and capture images from space, and ArduSat, which raised $106,330 for a cubesat packed with sensors designed to perform various missions conceived by project contributors. In addition, Uwingu, a startup founded by astronomers, scientists and educators to raise money for grants supporting space exploration, science and education, received $79,896 during a crowd funding campaign on the Indiegogo website.
For each successful crowd funding venture, however, there are multiple efforts that fail to win popular support.
Team Synergy Moon, a competitor for the Google Lunar X Prize race to the Moon, raised only $688 on Indiegogo of its $45,000 goal. The Ecuadorian Space Agency raised only $1,125 on Indiegogo out of the $45,000 it was seeking to offer Internet access to a video camera to observe near-Earth objects on its NEE-01 Pegasus satellite scheduled to launch in September on a Russian Dnepr rocket.
Indiegogo lets project designers keep whatever money they raise, even if the amount falls short of their initial goal. Kickstarter campaign designers, on the other hand, do not keep any donations if the project does not reach its initial fundraising goal. Both Indiegogo and Kickstarter allow project planners to keep money raised in excess of their goal. Projects that succeed on Kickstarter earn an average of 170 percent of their initial goal, said Kickstarter spokesman Justin Kazmark.
In addition to raising money, crowd funding campaigns help project developers identify an enthusiastic community of supporters while retaining ownership and control of their projects, Kazmark said. Uwingu’s founders tried initially to attract private investors. They quickly discovered, however, that those investors did not necessarily share their vision for the company. One prominent investor suggested Uwingu funnel less money into grants, which was not an approach that appealed to Uwingu’s founders.
“The Uwingu campaign was a lot of work, but we were able to raise the money without giving up control,” said Alan Stern, Uwingu chief executive and former NASA associate administrator for science.
Crowd funding campaigns require significant time and energy. Manchester spent about three months developing KickSat’s Kickstarter campaign, conducting interviews with bloggers and reporters, updating supporters on the mission and producing the rewards that are the hallmark of Kickstarter campaigns. People who donated $25 got their name silk-screened on the spacecraft. People who sent in $75 received a replica Sprite. For $300, contributors claimed a Sprite programmed to broadcast their initials from orbit. People who support projects on Kickstarter always get some reward in addition to the satisfaction of being part of a creative endeavor and helping to bring it to life, Kazmark said.
“Our project was well suited for crowd funding,” Manchester said. “I’m not sure it would work quite as well for a mission with a single instrument.”
Instead of using crowd funding websites, some single-instrument space missions are appealing to the public for direct donations. The B612 Foundation, for example, is inviting people around the world to contribute $10 to $10 million to fund a mission to launch a space telescope to identify near-Earth asteroids. B612 Foundation leaders have discussed the idea of turning to crowd funding websites, but have not yet gone in that direction, said spokeswoman Diane Murphy.