By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A privately owned asteroid mining firm, backed in part by Google Inc's founders, launched a crowd-funding project on Wednesday to gauge public interest in a small space telescope that could serve as a backdrop for personal photographs, officials said.
Planetary Resources, based in Bellevue, Washington, plans to build and operate telescopes to hunt for asteroids orbiting near Earth and robotic spacecraft to mine them for precious metals, water and other materials.
It also plans an educational and outreach program to let students, museums, armchair astronomers and virtual travelers share use of a telescope through an initiative on Kickstarter, a website used to raise funds for creative projects.
Planetary Resources aims to raise $1 million by June 30 to assess public appetite for participating in a space project. It expects to launch its first telescope in 2015.
For a pledge of $25, participants can make use of a "space photo booth" by sending a picture to be displayed like a billboard on the side of the telescope with Earth in the background. Its image would then be snapped by a remote camera and transmitted back.
Starting at $200, participants can use the telescope to look at an astronomical object.
The Kickstarter campaign complements the company's ongoing efforts to design and build its first telescope, called ARKYD. Investors include Google Chief Executive Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt, as well as Ross Perot Jr., chairman of the real estate development firm Hillwood and The Perot Group.
"All we are asking is for the public to tell us that they want something," company co-founder Eric Anderson told reporters during a webcast press conference on Wednesday.
"We're not going to spend our time and resources to do something if people don't want it and really the only way to prove that it's something people want is to ask them for money," he said.
Planetary Resources is not the first space startup to turn to crowd-funding. Colorado-based Golden Spike, which plans commercial human expeditions to the moon, has launched two initiatives on Indiegogo, another Internet-based funding platform.
Golden Spike exceeded a $75,000 goal to start a sister firm, called Uwingu, designed to funnel profits into space projects, but fell far short of a $240,000 target for spacesuits for Golden Spike's first moon run.
Hyper-V Technologies of Virginia turned to Kickstarter to raise nearly $73,000 to help develop a plasma jet electric thruster. STAR Systems in Phoenix, Arizona, raised $20,000 for work on a hybrid rocket motor for its suborbital Hermes spaceplane.
Last year, Washington-based LiftPort ended an $8,000 Kickstarter campaign with more than $100,000 to demonstrate how robots could climb a 1.2-mile long tether held aloft by a large helium balloon.
The company is working on an alternative space transportation system called a "space elevator" that uses tethers or cables instead of rockets.
"I think crowd-funding is a new kind of bike and people are trying and willing to ride it, some successfully, some not as successfully, but I think it's here to stay," said Golden Spike founder and planetary scientist Alan Stern.
"These companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and RocketHub, they seem to be some kind of marketing distribution system that lets people with an idea put it out there. Previously people didn't know how to do that except run an ad in a newspaper. It's a capability we just didn't have five years ago," Stern said.
(Editing by David Adams and Richard Chang)