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Uwingu's mystery crowdfunding campaign pledges support for SETI

SETI Institute

The antennas of the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array rise into the night sky at the Hat Creek Observatory in Northern California. The array could be an early beneficiary of the Uwingu program if backers exceed their crowdfunding goal.

The mystery space venture known as Uwingu hasn't yet met its $75,000 goal to kick off what it promises will be an entertaining space-themed online project — but if it does, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would be an early beneficiary.

Uwingu's founders declared today that half of any money it raises beyond the initial amount sought through its IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign would go to the SETI Institute to support its Allen Telescope Array in Northern California.

"We don't have to wait to begin helping space research until we launch our product," planetary scientist Alan Stern, Uwingu's CEO, said in a news release announcing the plan. "We're starting now!"

Stern and the project's other organizers say Uwingu is designed to get the general public more engaged in the space adventure and provide more support for space research and education. The idea is that up to half of the proceeds from the sale of Uwingu's products would be distributed to grantees — to accelerate worthwhile studies or outreach efforts in good times, or provide a safety net in bad times.

The SETI Institute is well familiar with the bad times: Last year, operations at the 42-telescope array were temporarily suspended due to the loss of financial support. The institute's SETIstars fund-raising program attracted enough contributions to resume the search for alien signals, but the long-term outlook is still challenging, said SETI Institute astronomer Jill Tarter, who recently switched her full-time focus to fund-raising.

"Even without the looming specter of federal budget 'sequestration,' available government budgets for space science, space research and programs encouraging STEM [science, technology engineering and math] education are shrinking fast," Tarter said in Uwingu's news release. "Our ideas and opportunities are bigger and better than ever, but they are all competing for a smaller resource pool.

"Alternative funding in the form of entrepreneurship is an absolute necessity if we are to continue exploring and solving grand challenges," Tarter continued. "All of us can participate in the IndieGoGo campaign and the launch of Uwingu, and purchase its products to generate revenues to fund the best ideas from scientists today and into tomorrow. Make it so!"

With 17 days left in its IndieGoGo campaign, Uwingu has attracted almost $30,000 in IndieGoGo contributions, including corporate sponsorships from Moon Express and XCOR Aerospace. The big challenge facing the venture at this point is that Uwingu's backers are holding off on describing the product they'll be offering. Stern wants to keep mum about the specifics, pending a big reveal this fall that would follow the first crowdfunding campaign.

"This is all about suspense, Alan. ... If we tell people now, when it’s announced, they’ll say it's old news," he told me earlier this month

That strategy add to Uwingu's intrigue, but some folks have said they're not ready to contribute money to a mystery. What do you think? Have any guesses as to what Uwingu is all about? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.