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Project Blue telescope
The BoldlyGo Institute is seeking private funding for missions like Project Blue (above), a space telescope designed to directly image extrasolar planets in the Alpha Centauri system. (credit: BoldlyGo Institute)

Seeking private funding for space science

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Researchers who want to fly experiments in space, or full-fledged spacecraft missions, rely primarily on government funding to do so: in the US, that means NASA and, to a lesser extent, other agencies, like the National Science Foundation. In some cases, companies will pay for flying experiments on the International Space Station provided there is some return for the company on their investment, such as advancing development of a drug, or some other technologies.

“Many of my colleagues are impatient,” Marka said. “We don’t want to wait 40 years for our dreams to come true. We want it tomorrow.”

At the same time, though, private space capabilities are proliferating. New launch vehicles promise cheaper access to space, either to Earth orbit and beyond or for suborbital missions. The cubesat revolution has made it cheaper than ever to build small but sophisticated spacecraft. That combination suggests that it’s feasible for scientists to develop missions without the need to go through government agencies for funding.

That was the hope, at least, of those who attended the Dawn of Private Space Science conference last month at Columbia University in New York. The two-day event discussed how advances in the commercial space sector opens up new possibilities for privately-funded research. The key challenge that emerged from the meeting was not one of scientific interest in these capabilities, or technological challenges, but of funding.

Satisfying impatient scientists

Among the self-selected group of people who chose to spend a mild summer weekend in a university lecture hall, there was no shortage of enthusiasm about the benefits of adopting private space systems, and private funding sources, for missions that once would have been exclusively in the government realm. That interest was rooted in part in the belief that non-governmental approaches could be faster.

“I can’t wait 40 years for my dream to come true,” said Szabolcs Marka, a professor of physics at Columbia and one of the conference organizers. That 40-year timeline was based on plans for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission to search for gravity waves: first proposed in the 1990s, the European Space Agency recently formally accepted the mission for development, with a launch planned for the early 2030s.

Forty years is an entire professional lifetime, staked to a single mission. Marka said he and his colleagues wanted to accelerate that. “Many of my colleagues are impatient,” he said. “We don’t want to wait 40 years for our dreams to come true. We want it tomorrow.”

Marka suggested that private resources could help fill a gap in his field of gravitational wave research. The existing groundbased Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which made the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015, is sensitive at frequencies of 1 to 20 hertz. LISA, with its far longer baselines—a few million kilometers between each of its three satellites, versus a few kilometers for the LIGO facilities—will be sensitive in the millihertz range, he said.

“There is a huge gap between LISA and LIGO,” he said, which he suggested could be filled by a spacecraft mission not nearly as expensive as LISA, whose cost will exceed $1 billion. He cited as one example DECi-hertz Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (DECIGO), a Japanese proposal for a space-based gravitational wave observatory that could operate at 0.1 to 1 hertz. That would require spacecraft separated by only about 1,000 kilometers from one another.

A mission like that, he argued, was within the reach of private funding. “Private resources can make it happen sooner, because we have the technology,” he said. “We don’t need to invent anything. We have the technology, we just need to get it to space.”

“The main challenge is funding. There’s no question about it,” Morse said. “That is the thing I spend most of my time on.”

Jon Morse would agree. The former director of NASA’s astrophysics division, Morse has for the last few years run a private nonprofit organization, the BoldlyGo Institute, that has proposed a range of planetary science and astrophysics missions. At the conference, he highlighted some of those proposals, from a mission to skim the upper atmosphere of Mars to return dust samples to Project Blue, a space telescope that would attempt to directly image exoplanets orbiting Alpha Centauri.

These missions, he argued, fit into the gaps left by NASA missions. “We’re here at BoldlyGo to accelerate world-class scientific research. We want to transform the funding model for space science and exploration, to augment and enhance the national portfolio, not to replace it,” he said. “We’re not going to have $5 billion a year like [NASA’s] Science Mission Directorate, but even with their budget they are resource-constrained. We can help advance discovery.”

That means, he said, going against the prevailing belief that space missions are too expensive. “They don’t cost too much,” he said. “They’re within the history of philanthropy and other kinds of revenue generation in order to do frontier science.”

Mind the funding gap

Convincing individuals and organizations with the means to fund such projects, though, remains a major obstacle. “The main challenge is funding. There’s no question about it,” Morse said. “That is the thing I spend most of my time on.”

He said he’s tried talking with foundations, like those who fund other scientific research, about supporting one of BoldlyGo’s mission concepts. The problem, he said, is the perception that space science remains solely in the domain of NASA. “So far, what we have found is that when we approach a lot of people, they say, ‘Well, isn’t NASA doing this?’” he recalled. “Yes, NASA’s doing that, but there’s room to do a lot more.”

BoldlyGo has recently brought in a consultant, Sandya Narayanswami, to help develop a program for soliciting funding from foundations. Narayanswami, the former head of the office of foundation relations at Caltech, handling gifts as large as $300 million, said she sees some promise in the space sector in raising private funding, but that it’s still early in the process.

“Overall, working with space programs—private space and the types of things we’ve been discussing the last couple of days—they are very, very new,” she said. “This is very new for foundations. Mostly they will ask you, ‘Why aren’t you going to NASA?’”

“Remarkably, very little is known about these asteroids,” Elvis said of potential targets for prospecting missions. “That means astronomers can turn out to be useful again.”

She likened the prospects for private space research, though, to the biomedical field, which is now winning the bulk of foundation awards going to science research. “The relationship of the space programs with the foundation community is the way, it seems to me, where biomedical research was 20 years ago,” she said. “The paradigm is still evolving.”

“I think what’s attractive to me is that this is a new area, where we can really make a difference for space,” she said. “But it’s still at a very, very early stage, and it’s evolving. It’s hard for me to predict where it will go.”

Smaller steps

If a gravitational wave observatory or exoplanet space telescope might be too much for a foundation to fund in the near future, there are smaller projects with scientific and other benefits that could be privately funded by foundations or corporations.

Martin Elvis, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, sees the need to do asteroid prospecting from Earth as one area where private and scientific needs might lead to collaboration. “Remarkably, very little is known about these asteroids,” he said of potential targets for prospecting missions. “That means astronomers can turn out to be useful again.”

Elvis proposed using existing large observatories, with apertures of six to ten meters, that he argued will be obsolete once a new generation of extremely large telescopes enters service in the next decade. “They’re going to have to find new reasons for being,” he said. “They will be looking for new uses, and I think they should be repurposed for asteroid mining.”

A commercially-funded asteroid survey, using one of those large telescopes, might cost in the “low tens of millions” of dollars per year, he said. It would benefit asteroid mining companies, he argued, by helping identify what are the most promising asteroids to prospect in situ with spacecraft, while helping planetary scientists better understand the population of near Earth asteroids.

That’s already happening with radio observatories, thanks to the Breakthrough Listen project, funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Breakthrough Listen has purchased time on several radio telescopes in the United States and Australia, providing financial support for telescopes that might otherwise be facing reduced operations or closure.

On a smaller, and nearer-term, scale is funding for suborbital research. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are providing opportunities to fly research payloads on their New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles, in some cases at a modest price.

Sirisha Bandla of Virgin Galactic said she couldn’t publicly quote prices for those flights, in part because it depends on each payload’s needs. “The researcher basically lays out what they want to do, and we look at what that’s going to mean on our end,” she said.

“Literally, any K-through-12 institution that can afford new football uniforms for their team can have a space program,” said Blue Origin’s Wagner.

Virgin Galactic will be performing powered test flights of its second SpaceShipTwo as soon as later this year, which she said would include the opportunity to fly research payloads. “We can put in a few payloads when we’re not officially in commercial operations,” she said.

Blue Origin has already flown a few such “pathfinder” payloads during a series of New Shepard test flights last year. It’s more willing to share pricing: Erika Wagner said that most science payloads will cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to fly on a suborbital flight.

The cost is even lower for educational payloads. “We’ve driven that down as far as we can,” to as low as $5,300. That’s less, she noted, than it typically costs a high school to buy new football uniforms. “Literally, any K-through-12 institution that can afford new football uniforms for their team can have a space program.”

And if school districts and booster clubs can lead, perhaps philanthropists can follow. Alex MacDonald, a NASA economist and author of a new book on private funding of space science and technology endeavors prior to the start of the Space Age (see “Review: The Long Space Age”, The Space Review, April 24, 2017), welcomed the increased interest in private funding of space science missions, even while noting that, for now, the interest isn’t yet there to fund large-scale missions.

He also didn’t see private funding in competition with the space agency. “Today, we’re in a phase now where it’s safe to say that it’s going to continue to be a mix of both [private and government funding] for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We at NASA are happy to see the rise of these capabilities.”