Crowdfunding Key for $25 Million Student-led Mars Mission

Time Capsule to Mars Mission Director Emily Briere, a Duke University rising senior, explains her $25 million Mars mission concept June 23 at the National Press Club in Washington. Credit: Brian Berger/SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — A project to send the first student-built small spacecraft to Mars plans to raise the bulk of its $25 million budget through crowdfunding, an effort that would make the mission among the largest such efforts in history.

Time Capsule to Mars, a student-led project supported by the advocacy group Explore Mars and several aerospace companies, plans to launch in the next five years a cubesat-class spacecraft to Mars carrying photos and other digital media. The spacecraft would burn up in the martian atmosphere except for a section carrying the media that is designed to survive to the martian surface.

“We’ve got a lot of firsts, and it’s very exciting,” said Emily Briere, a senior at Duke University who is mission director for Time Capsule to Mars, during a press conference announcing the mission here June 23. Besides being the first student-built interplanetary mission, she said, the project hopes to fly the first cubesat mission beyond Earth orbit, as well as be the first interplanetary mission to use a new type of electric propulsion, called ion electrospray thrusters, under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The most unique aspect of the mission, however, may be its funding. The project plans to raise most of the $25 million needed to fly the mission through a self-hosted crowdfunding campaign. Individuals can upload a photo to be included on the mission for $0.99 each, and the project plans to later allow uploads of video, music and other files.
SpaceNews.com Editor Brian Berger interviews Time Capsule to Mars Business Director Jon Tidd

A project to send the first student-built small spacecraft to Mars plans to raise the bulk of its $25 million budget through crowdfunding, an effort that would make the mission among the largest such efforts in history.

Time Capsule to Mars, a student-led project supported by the advocacy group Explore Mars and several aerospace companies, plans to launch in the next five years a cubesat-class spacecraft to Mars carrying photos and other digital media. The spacecraft would burn up in the martian atmosphere except for a section carrying the media that is designed to survive to the martian surface.

“We’ve got a lot of firsts, and it’s very exciting,” said Emily Briere, a senior at Duke University who is mission director for Time Capsule to Mars, during a press conference announcing the mission here June 23. Besides being the first student-built interplanetary mission, she said, the project hopes to fly the first cubesat mission beyond Earth orbit, as well as be the first interplanetary mission to use a new type of electric propulsion, called ion electrospray thrusters, under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The most unique aspect of the mission, however, may be its funding. The project plans to raise most of the $25 million needed to fly the mission through a self-hosted crowdfunding campaign. Individuals can upload a photo to be included on the mission for $0.99 each, and the project plans to later allow uploads of video, music and other files.

“We were looking for opportunities to fund this mission in a way that would involve as many people as possible,” said Jon Tidd, a graduate student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and director of fundraising and marketing for Time Capsule to Mars. “We came up with the idea of a simplified 99-cent upload for a single digital photo.”

While most crowdfunding efforts use services such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter to collect donations, Tidd said technical limitations associated with the uploading of photos led the project to host the campaign on its website, at least in the initial phases. “We’ll look to potentially move to another partner down the line,” he said, as well as provide rewards for larger donations. Tidd added that the team is working to add more capabilities to its crowdfunding system, including the ability to see the images uploaded by others.

Briere said the $25 million fundraising goal comes from a feasibility study for the mission performed at MIT. “We want the primary mode of contribution to be through crowdfunding,” she said, although they have also received some corporate donations. Among the companies represented at Time Capsule to Mars press event were Aerojet, ATK and Lockheed Martin.

While Briere said she hopes Time Capsule to Mars will be the largest crowdfunded project of any kind in history, there is at least one such project that has raised more than $25 million. A video game called Star Citizen initially raised $2.1 million through Kickstarter in 2012, but has since solicited donations through the website of its developer, Cloud Imperium Games. As of June 27, that project had raised a total of $47.2 million.

Time Capsule to Mars, though, would dwarf any space-related crowdfunding campaign. The largest such effort to date was by Planetary Resources Inc., which a year ago raised $1.5 million through Kickstarter to fund a space telescope based on the company’s Arkyd series of spacecraft that would be accessible to the public. The campaign exceeded its original goal by 50 percent.

However, the success of Planetary Resources’ crowdfunding effort is tempered by the failure of other efforts. Last year, Golden Spike Company, a venture planning to perform commercial human missions to the surface of the Moon, attempted to raise $240,000 on Indiegogo to support mission studies and outreach activities. The campaign ended in April 2013 with the company raising only $19,450.

Raising large amounts of money through crowdfunding requires a lot of work, and some luck, said one of the people behind Planetary Resources’ campaign. “It basically took our entire team” of about 30 employees to plan for the Kickstarter effort, some working for months in advance, said Caitlin O’Keefe, director of marketing for the company, in a presentation at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles in May. “We prepared really well for this event.”

Time Capsule to Mars currently has 25 to 30 students working on the project at four universities, Briere said, but the project expects to increase that number once classes resume in the fall.

See original article by Jeff Foust at SpaceNews.com HERE.

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