Astronomers have decided to go with the people's choice and propose Vulcan and Cerberus (or Kerberos) as the names for Pluto's tiniest known moons, one of the discovery team's leaders said Tuesday. Vulcan bubbled up to the top of the list in a non-binding "Pluto Rocks" contest in February, thanks in part to a strong endorsement from "Star Trek" captain William Shatner. The International Astronomical Union, which traditionally approves celestial names, still has to weigh in on the discoverers' proposal.
"We did not feel rigidly bound by the vote totals, but in the end we decided that Vulcan and Cerberus/Kerberos were pretty good names," said Mark Showalter, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute who organized the contest. Showalter discussed the selection process in an email to NBC News after Nature reported that the IAU was considering the names.
Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk on the original "Star Trek" series, proposed the name Vulcan in honor of the home planet of Kirk's pointy-eared science officer, Mr. Spock. He put out the word to more than a million Twitter followers, and Vulcan ended up receiving 174,062 of the 450,324 votes cast. Cerberus was No. 2 on the list, with 99,434 votes.
Astronomers needed two names — one for the Plutonian moon P4, discovered in 2011; and another for P5, found in 2012. Although Vulcan and Cerberus were the favorites, it was not assured that the discovery team would go with those choices.
Stating the case Traditionally, Pluto's moons are named after figures of the underworld from Greek or Roman mythology. Cerberus fit that scheme, because that was the name of the dog that guarded the gates of the Greco-Roman underworld. Vulcan, which is the name of the Roman god of fire as well as Mr. Spock's home world, posed more of a challenge.
"For the IAU proposal, I had to make the connection between Vulcan and the Greco-Roman underworld, because I knew that the nomenclature working groups would not be swayed by Star Trek mythology," Showalter explained. "We don't normally associate Vulcan with Pluto, but in fact when you go back to the literature, the Greeks and Romans understood the underworld to encompass everything beneath the surface of the earth, not just the realm of the dead. So Vulcan, the god of lava and volcanoes, really does have a natural connection to underworld.
"That being said, the nomenclature working group has to grapple with the issue that in astronomy, the name Vulcan has previously been associated with a hypothetical object or objects orbiting interior to Mercury. They also will probably have concerns about the fact that Cerberus has already been used as the name of an asteroid. I still believe that it is very important to give the working group latitude in this decision. I remain optimistic that a consensus will emerge."
Nicknaming an exoplanet Meanwhile, another celestial naming contest has come to a surprise ending. For weeks, a commercial venture called Uwingu has been running a contest to come up with an unofficial nickname for Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest exoplanet. Thanks to a last-minute surge of vote-buying, the winner of the planet-naming game is "Albertus Alauda."
"I chose this name to honor my grandfather," Jason Lark wrote in his online citation for the name. He explained that Albertus Alauda is the Latin translation of Albert Lark, his grandfather's name.
Uwingu charges $4.99 for each planet nomination, and 99 cents for each vote. A spokeswoman for Uwingu, Ellen Butler, told NBC News in an email Tuesday that Lark "came in with a $742.50 payment last night to take the win." The mass voting is perfectly in accordance with the rules of Uwingu's game.
"I am overjoyed that my nomination won," Lark told NBC News in an email. "I think my grandfather would be very happy, and I hope my citation does him justice. I am very proud of my granddad. As with any other star or planet, they along with their names live on much longer than any one man, and most have a story behind them, such as in the days of old when stars were used to navigate the globe. I would like to think that Albertus Alauda will take its place alongside them in the generations to come, along with the story behind it."
Among the runner-up names were Sagan and Einstein, Ron Paul and Heinlein, Rakhat (the Alpha Centauri planet featured in a sci-fi novel called "The Sparrow"), Tiber (the Alpha Centauri planet that moonwalker Buzz Aldrin made famous in his novel "Encounter With Tiber") and Amara (the first name of the nominator's fiancee). In all, more than 1,200 names were nominated.
Neither Albertus Alauda nor any of those other names has official status with the IAU. In a stinging news release, the IAU said Uwingu's campaigns "will not lead to an officially recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued."
There is currently no IAU-sanctioned process for approving popular names for the hundreds of extrasolar planets detected beyond our solar system. Instead, astronomers take the name of the star (for example, Alpha Centauri B or Kepler-62) and tack on a letter of the alphabet, starting with "b." (Hence, Alpha Centauri Bb or Kepler-62f.) For the time being, the IAU is sticking with that system, although it said members would discuss establishing a friendlier naming scheme this year.
Meanwhile, Uwingu's "baby book of names" for exoplanets remains open for business. "Also, next week we'll debut a new way to engage in exoplanet naming," Uwingu's CEO, planetary scientist Alan Stern, said in an email.
A fledgling commercial venture called Uwingu stirred up an international controversy when it started soliciting friendlier names for planets beyond our solar system. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement saying that Uwingu's pay-to-play scheme has "no bearing on the official naming process," and that the IAU is the "single arbiter" on the names for all celestial objects.
But is it?
How about Tatooine? Or UGA-1785? Those are the casual nicknames sanctioned by NASA for a planet known officially as Kepler-16b, and a planetary system called Kepler-37 (although "UGA-1785" doesn't sound like much of an improvement over Kepler-37). It certainly looks as if nicknaming exoplanets is becoming a new frontier on the final frontier, regardless of what the IAU says.
The IAU may get into the act as well: The international organization says it will discuss the idea of having popular names for exoplanets this year. Meanwhile, Uwingu is sticking to its guns. "I think that it's really presumptuous of the IAU to think that they own the sky," one of the venture's founders, planetary scientist Alan Stern, told NBC News.
Paying to take part One of the extra twists to the controversy is that Uwingu is using its exoplanet-naming contest as a fundraising tool. It costs $4.99 to put a name on the unofficial ballot, and each vote for a planetary name costs 99 cents. Uwingu plans to give half of the proceeds from its contests to space science and educational projects.
The fact that people are paying to stuff an exoplanetary ballot box particularly rankled the IAU, which compared the scheme to the International Star Registry and the Lunar Embassy. This week's statement said the IAU "dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling names of planets, stars or or even 'real estate' on other planets or moons. These practices will not be recognized by the IAU and their alternative naming schemes cannot be adopted."
That statement, in turn, rankled Uwingu's board of advisers, including University of Geneva astronomer Xavier Dumusque, who led the Alpha Centauri Bb discovery team.
"It is unfair to characterize this citizen participation in astronomical nomenclature as being anything like those organizations that purport to sell astronomical objects to the public," the advisers said in a statement emailed to NBC News. "Uwingu's mission is scientific and educational and directly benefits the space science community. It provides a means by which ordinary citizens can feel connected to and help support the discoveries of exoplanets that continue to excite and astonish the human imagination."
Planetary precedent NASA is already doing that: Tatooine, for example, refers to a planet detected by NASA's Kepler telescope that orbits a binary star system — just like the fictional planet of the same name in the "Star Wars" saga.
UGA-1785 is of more recent vintage, paying tribute to the University of Georgia. "Knowing my UGA history, I knew that the light from this star began its journey toward the Kepler telescope in 1801, the same year that the Franklin College was founded and that classes began at UGA," Franklin College Dean Alan Hunter said in a news release announcing NASA's blessing for the name.
Closer to home, NASA uses the name "Mount Sharp" for the Martian mountain that's due to be the ultimate destination for the Curiosity rover, even though the IAU has named the peak "Aeolis Mons." The Sharp name pays tribute to the late Robert P. Sharp, a geologist who studied formations on Earth as well as on Mars.
Is there any harm in having Mount Sharp as well as Aeolis Mons? Or Rakhat as well as Alpha Centauri Bb? It might get confusing if there were lots and lots of names for the same exoplanet, but it's not a problem to have a friendly name as well as a scientific name for the same object. After all, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it can also be an Anas platyrhynchos. And nobody get upset over having multiple names for the Whirlpool Galaxy, a.k.a. Messier 51a, a.k.a. NGC 5194.
But what do you think? Cast a vote in our survey (no charge!), and leave your comments below.
Zeb Gray thought naming an exoplanet after his girlfriend would be the perfect tribute to "the eternal love that we share for each other" — and whether or not the name sticks, the decision arguably changed his life. On Friday, Gray asked Amara Somers to marry him, and she said yes.
Did the fact that Gray proposed the name "Amara" for the planet now known as Alpha Centauri Bb have anything to do with the way his more personal proposal was received? "I think it weighed on her decision," Gray, a 25-year-old security guard from Carson City, Nev., told NBC News.
The planet-naming gap Amara is currently the top vote-getter in Uwingu's online contest to give Alpha Centauri Bb, the closest-known exoplanet, a more mellifluous name. Traditionally, the International Astronomical Union has had the job of naming celestial bodies — but for now, the IAU has held off on setting up an exoplanet-naming system. Instead, astronomers refer to alien worlds using a combination of the star's name (for example, Alpha Centauri B) and a lower-case letter (which is where that second "b" comes from).
Uwingu, a space-themed entertainment venture, has stepped into the gap with a system that lets users suggest planet names for $4.99, and cast ballots for 99 cents a vote. Half of the proceeds will go to support space science and education projects.
The contest to rename Alpha Centauri Bb runs until April 15, and although the resulting name won't have any official standing with the IAU, Gray would love to see Amara win. "I'm glad to see it has a decent lead, but that could go away pretty quickly," Gray said.
Zeb Gray pays tribute to his fiancee, Amara Somers, with an online card as well as an exoplanet name suggestion.
There's another contender with a strong science-fiction connection, and a high-profile backer to boot. The name "Tiber" is favored by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who's the co-author of a 1977 sci-fi novel titled "Encounter With Tiber." The Tiberians hail from a planet in the Alpha Centauri, and that's one of Aldrin's selling points.
"Don't forget to vote for TIBER in the contest to replace the name for Alpha Centauri Bb," Aldrin told his nearly 800,000 followers in a Twitter update last week. As of this writing, Tiber is No. 17 on the charts with 35 votes — ranking below Amara as well as Heinlein, Pele, Sagan, Asimov and Ron Paul.
Wooed by a moon Gray, who met Somers at the state agency where they both work four months ago, isn't the first guy to impress a woman by naming a celestial body after her. When Naval Observatory astronomer James Christy discovered Pluto's biggest moon in 1978, he proposed naming it "Charon" — not only because Charon was the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, but also because the name paid tribute to his wife, Charlene.
("Char" was Christy's pet nickname for his wife. In her honor, the name is often pronounced "Shar-on" rather than "Care-on, " which is the pronunciation associated with the Greek ferryman. That's one of the many fun facts you'll find in my book, "The Case for Pluto.")
Is it really worth all this fuss to give Alpha Centauri Bb a better name? Astronomer Xavier Dumusque, the lead author of the paper that announced the exoplanet's discovery last year, thinks so.
"I would definitively endorse the name for public outreach and lectures," Dumusque told NBC News in an email. "In astronomy, we have some chance to be able to make people dream, by showing a wonderful picture, by discovering new worlds. If someone is interested in astronomy, he should not face troubles to understand all the nomenclature. Therefore, giving memorable names for planets is one way to get more people interested in our wonderful research."
Do you agree? What names would you suggest? Check out the Uwingu list, and feel free to leave your suggestions as comments below.
An artist's conception shows the planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple-star system that's closest to Earth. Alpha Centauri B is the most brilliant object in the sky, with Alpha Centauri A at lower left and our own sun visible as a bright speck at upper right.
"It might be Pandora. Who knows?" said planetary scientist Alan Stern, Uwingu's co-founder and chief executive officer.
As fans of the James Cameron sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar" know, Pandora is the name of the moon in the Alpha Centauri system where the movie's action takes place. In science fiction, planets beyond our solar system have colorful names. But in reality, exoplanets merely have designations that are based either on the name of the star they orbit (like Alpha Centauri Bb) or on the name of the probe that discovered the world (like Kepler-37b)
The International Astronomical Union, which usually takes the lead role in naming celestial objects and features, has held back on creating an exoplanet-naming process. So Stern and his partners set up Uwingu to fill the vacuum — and raise some funds for research and education in the process.
Starting today, Uwingu is taking nominations for Alpha Centauri Bb's new name, at a price of $4.99 per suggestion. For 99 cents per vote, Uwingu's registered users can pick their favorite name. The name that has the most votes when the contest ends on April 15 will be crowned the people's choice. It won't carry any weight with the IAU, but Stern is hoping that the name will stick.
"There are people in the world who think astronomers own the sky, and what we're effectively saying is, it's the people who own the sky," Stern said.
The user who suggests the winning name will receive recognition and prizes from Uwingu. There'll be additional yet-to-be-specified prizes for runner-ups, and for those whose name suggestions reach the 100-, 1,000- and 10,000-vote level. Uwingu already has a list to start with, since it's been in the exoplanet-naming business for several months.
"Older names will be grandfathered in, but I think the new ones will soar past these," Stern told NBC News. (The current top vote-getter is Heinlein, a name that pays tribute to the science-fiction master Robert Heinlein.)
Proceeds from the contest will be distributed according to Uwingu's formula, which puts half of the money into a fund to be given out as grants. Uwingu is structured as a commercial venture, so the rest of the money helps pay the venture's bills. Stern realizes that having people pay to suggest planetary names with no official standing may be controversial, and he's willing to take the heat.
"Just spell our name right," he said.
His supporters include one of the world's foremost planet-hunters, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who is one of Uwingu's advisers. In an email, Marcy told NBC News he thought the idea of naming Alpha Centauri Bb sounded "marvelous."
"It should be fun and creative," Marcy said. "It hurts no one, and generates funding for research. What a perfect antidote to the modern crunch on funding in pure research!"
Uwingu's critics include Caltech astronomer Wladimir Lyra, who came up with his own proposal for naming extrasolar planets a few years ago. He's not crazy about the pay-for-play naming system. "What I would advocate is a classical way of naming the planets from our own myths, the way we name features on planets in our own solar system," Lyra told NBC News. "We can draw upon the expertise that the IAU has for naming things."
As long as people understand what they're buying — and what's not for sale — Uwingu's contest looks like an interesting and harmless experiment. Heck, it might even push the world's astronomers to reach consensus on names for the most prominent exoplanets. But what do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Update for 9:35 p.m. ET: I originally wrote that Uwingu is structured as a for-profit venture, and that the company's partners will receive some of the proceeds — but in a follow-up exchange, Stern said that Uwingu is a long way from making a profit. Half of the revenue goes to a fund for research and education grants, and the other half helps pay the bills.
"Uwingu was to find a new way to fund space research and education in tough times. Some of us wrote checks and put some pretty serious money into getting the company started, and each of the members of this company has contributed hundreds and in some cases thousands of hours to developing this since 2010," Stern said in an email. "None of us has received even a dime from the Indiegogo campaign or any funds we've earned on sales since we debuted. This is a labor of love."
Michael Laine was just looking for $8,000 to restart the LiftPort Group and put it on a path toward someday building a space elevator on the moon — but with a few days left to go on his Kickstarter campaign, the venture has attracted nearly $70,000 and counting. Which actually poses a challenge: What will he do with all that money?
"I've got to tell you the honest truth: I am tired," Laine told me today. "This campaign has taken me places I didn't expect. ... Now we've been burning the midnight oil trying to figure out what's next."
Laine's experience is in line with what other space entrepreneurs are finding: Crowdfunding campaigns can capitalize on the enthusiasm that regular folks have about outer-space ventures such as ArduSat (which would put Internet users in control of a yet-to-be-launched small satellite) and Uwingu (which aims to "game-ify" space exploration in an as-yet-unspecified way).
For raising tens of thousands of dollars, crowdfunding is great. But what does that mean for the outer-space marketplace, where the price tags traditionally run into millions or billions of dollars?
"Seventy thousand dollars in itself is not enough to build LiftPort the way it used to be," Laine said. "Everybody is saying, 'Hey, Michael, this is great! You got the money!' I'm thinking, 'That's great, but where does the next check come from?'"
The $70,000 is enough to get LiftPort back in the game, five years after it faltered: Back then, Laine and his colleagues in Bremerton, Wash., were experimenting with balloon-borne platforms and tether-climbing robots. Thanks to those experiments, LiftPort was taking small but significant steps toward building aerial systems that could be used for wireless communications and surveillance. LiftPort's business plan relied on such incremental innovations to make the money required for higher-altitude ventures, eventually leading to the construction of a "railway" to outer space.
The plan didn't work. When a deal to make carbon nanotubes in a New Jersey factor fell through, Laine faced legal action in the Garden State. Regulatory issues were raised in his home state of Washington. He lost the company's building to foreclosure, and had to put his space-elevator dreams on hold.
Two years ago, Laine signed a consent decree that resolved the regulatory mess in Washington state. The New Jersey matter is still somewhat in limbo, but he intends to get that resolved as well. "I still consider it part of my to-do list," Laine said.
Right now, getting LiftPort moving again is the top item on that to-do list. He has lots of Kickstarter premium items to make good on, ranging from space elevator cards to T-shirts to carbon-nanotube wedding rings. He's also working on reassembling the old team, and drawing up the strategy for launching tethered balloons to higher and higher altitudes.
"We're going to aim for at least 2 kilometers," Laine said. "I never doubted that for a second. Three kilometers shouldn't be a problem. Five, I'm definitely wondering about."
Heavy-duty scientific balloons typically rise up to altitudes of 100,000 feet (30 kilometers) or more before they pop, but Laine said he has to be more careful with the balloons used by LiftPort. The fact that they'll be tethered to the ground is an additional complicating factor. And $70,000 — or more likely $50,000 once all the premium items are distributed — can take you only so far.
Laine knows exactly how far he'd like to go: "It turns out that Mount McKinley is 6.2 kilometers [above sea level]. It's a completely arbitrary goal, but you know what? Let's be the tallest thing in North America. If we can reach to Mount McKinley's height ... I don't know if we can do that within the budget that we have."
To address that challenge, and get closer to the Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure that he's promising to build, Laine is talking with potential angel investors — and the fact that he's been able to raise $70,000 on Kickstarter in just a couple of weeks should make an impression. The way Laine sees it, the fact that more than 2,300 people have given to the cause is even more impressive.
"I'm very grateful to those backers," Laine said. "Everybody is focusing on the dollar amounts, but I'm focusing on the number of individual backers. That number is much more important to me."
LiftPort isn't the only space venture in the crowdfunding game. Here are updates on some of the other ventures seeking out the wisdom (and wherewithal) of crowds:
Uwingu touts its goal of funding space projects through a for-profit venture.
Uwingu: This high-profile, for-profit venture is aimed at generating revenue through a series of public engagement projects that relate to space exploration. Half of the proceeds would be made available to educators and researchers for space projects. As of today, Uwingu has raised more than $35,000 of its $75,000 goal, with seven days left for fundraising on Indiegogo. Five corporate sponsors have been announced: Ball Aerospace, Moon Express, Parabolic Arc, Space Daily and XCOR Aerospace. Uwingu's organizers say they will unveil their first online product later this year. One of the venture's first beneficiaries will be the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, which is searching for signals from alien civilizations. Mars exploration has also been cited as a priority.
ArduSat: Engineers and space activists banded together in June to seek crowdfunding via Kickstarter for their plan to put a CubeSat into orbit and let stakeholders take pictures or run experiments. Over the month that followed, the group raised $106,330 — way more than their original goal of $35,000. Now the team is developing the hardware and software for the ArduSat mission, with the aim of securing a ride-along launch to orbit in the next 18 months or so.
SkyCube: Southern Stars' Tim DeBenedictis wants to put a CubeSat called SkyCube into orbit, and he's raising money for the mission through Kickstarter. As of today, almost 2,300 backers have pledged almost $100,000 — exceeding the original goal of $82,500. DeBenedictis figures the total cost of the SkyCube mission will be $200,000, with the launch cost accounting for $125,000 of that total. The aim is to launch the satellite next year as a secondary payload on a SpaceX rocket. Depending on their level of support, Kickstarter backers could get a chance to have their tweets broadcast from space, take pictures from orbit ... or get a T-shirt.
Tau Zero Foundation: Rocket scientist Marc Millis is a researcher who looked into Star Trek-style propulsion technologies while he was at NASA, and helped create the Tau Zero Foundation when he left the space agency. This week he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money for a book-writing project. The book would capitalize on a graduate-level textbook he helped edit, titled "Frontiers of Propulsion Science," and present way-out propulsion concepts such as warp drives and faster-than-light travel in a style that's aimed at popular audiences. The promised premiums include copies of the book, acknowledgments in the book, in-person presentations and Tau Zero memberships. The campaign has raised $545 so far toward the $56,000 goal.
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.
"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.
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.
Will you Uwingu? A commercial venture that's been founded to fund space research and education is betting that you will, even if you're not a hard-core space fan.
But what is Uwingu? The founders are being coy about that, in order to build interest for their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. As of today, they're almost a third of the way toward their goal of $75,000 in seed money, with 30 days left to go. Just today, Moon Express became the venture's first corporate sponsor, and XCOR Aerospace quickly followed up with the second $1,000 sponsorship.
Planetary scientist Alan Stern has been in training for a suborbital research flight.
Right now, Uwingu is the project Stern is most anxious to talk about. The name comes from the Swahili word for "sky," and the venture's backers hope that Uwingu will eventually make things easier for researchers and educators who focus on what's going on in the sky above. In addition to Stern, the venture's backers include space historian Andrew Chaikin, educator Emily CoBabe-Ammann, citizen-science leader Pamela Gay, science museum curator David Grinspoon, planet hunter Geoff Marcy, and planetary scientists Teresa Segura and Mark Sykes.
"Uwingu will employ novel software applications to 'game-ify' space, with the profits going toward research and education," Gay said in a news release issued this month. "Our projects will be fun to use, and the proceeds from their use will make a real difference in how space exploration, research and education is funded."
Stern says a million dollars' worth of software development effort has gone into the venture already, and the $75,000 will help pay the bills for future development. He's not willing to be specific about what the software will do, but he thinks it'll be engaging enough to draw in people who wouldn't otherwise care about space science. The revenue could amount to millions of dollars, with half of that being offered to researchers and educators through a peer-reviewed grant program, he told me.
Even though Stern is keeping mum, there's a clue to his secret in the trademark database entry for Uwingu: The trademark refers to "a website featuring online technology that enables users to name both features on the surfaces of bodies in the solar system and solar system bodies themselves." If I had to guess, I'd speculate that Stern and his colleagues might be banking on future discoveries on the solar system's rim. Those naming opportunities might be made available to Uwingu's users as part of an online treasure hunt. But that's just a guess — and I'm a notoriously bad guesser.
During a pre-show interview, Stern delved into the genesis and goals of Uwingo, as well as other topics ranging from suborbital spaceflight to the big Pluto mission. Here's an edited transcript of our Q&A:
Cosmic Log: How did Uwingu get started?
Alan Stern: "I had the idea for this several years ago, but I didn’t really execute on it until the beginning of 2010. We got a team together and formed a company, and we started writing software for the first app. Now, you’re probably wondering, 'Why did it take two and a half years?' The first thing we wanted to do was a project that was so massive in scope that we needed to raise a couple of million dollars in venture capital to put together the software product.
"Ultimately, we decided we didn’t want to give away a lot of ownership, because our central goal was to create the Uwingu Fund for space science and education. We just didn’t want to cede that to someone with a big checkbook who might say, 'Well, I don’t like the idea of giving away 50 percent. I want that 50 percent, and I own the company.' Although we developed a great idea, it just wasn’t feasible to finish it. So we developed the second product, beginning about this time last year. That was much easier, and that’s actually what we’re going to roll out with. We had a bit of a false start, although the work’s not wasted: We intend to take the half-developed initial project and make that our second product. To finish it, we’ll use revenues coming in from the first project."
Q: I thought Uwingu was going to be basically a Kickstarter venture for space missions. …
A: "Not at all. Let me tell you what Uwingu’s about: We’re turning the old paradigm upside down. Typically, people create nonprofits, and they say, 'This nonprofit supports a certain cause' — in this case, space research and education. Sign up, be a member, contribute. That’s how the American Heart Association works on heart disease."
Q: Or the Planetary Society for space exploration...
A: "Right, I’m a member of the Planetary Society. I’m a huge fan of theirs. Nothing wrong with the Planetary Society. But we don’t want to create a competitor for the Planetary Society, or the National Space Society or the AIAA or anybody else. And if you look at those groups, they have a very narrow 'wheel base.' That’s not unusual. It’s just reflective of the fact that not that many people really care about space enough to join groups and contribute.
"So we asked ourselves, 'How can we have a large impact?' We know that space researchers and educators currently have only one major funding source: NASA. If you’re a medical researcher, and the National Institutes of Health has its budget cut, you’re not totally out of luck. You can go to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or the Gates Foundation, or a hundred other places where you can find funding. If you’re a geologist, and USGS gets cut, you would probably go work for a gas company, or a mineral resources company. If you’re in math, or computer science, or in atmospheric science, you’ve got a full range of options.
"The point is, space funding is not diversified. NASA is pretty much the one-stop shop. Your fate depends not just on how well you do, but also on how well NASA fares. And NASA has been suffering the vicissitudes of a tug of war between Congress and the administration. Every year we hear that 'this is not a good year to have an increase.' The economy is bad, the election is coming up, it’s the wrong topic, there’s something else pressing, we just had 9/11, we’re in a war. It’s always something. We want to create a second way for space scientists and educators — in part to give them a backstop in bad times, when there are budget cuts, but also to create more capacity to get things done.
"The analogy I like is to think of NASA as a highway. We’re trying to add an extra lane to the highway. When there’s a budget cut — a traffic jam — you have the option of getting in a new lane and moving forward. And when everything’s going fine, the extra lane adds capacity. We’re not just looking to help in bad times, we want to help in good times, too.
"You might say, 'Look, NASA’s got an $18 billion budget — how much more money can you generate?' Well, we don’t need to generate that kind of money. The actual amount of money going to the researchers in space science is only a couple percent of the NASA budget. It’s a few hundred million dollars — it’s not billions. As you know, people scream when there’s a cut to that budget. If we could generate 10 percent, or 5 percent, of the research money, then we could really have a positive impact.
"So here’s what we came up with: Instead of putting our tin cup out for a good cause, and getting support from people who are interested in the cause, why don’t we turn the business model upside down? Why don’t we just create products that people want to engage with and buy, and we’ll take everything that’s left after we pay our bills and put into the Uwingu Fund. Because we’re selling products that people who are not space fanatics will purchase, all of a sudden your addressable market becomes the world. Not just the space world, but the world.
"These particular products — which I’m not going to tell you about — will be of interest to schoolkids and educators, to hobbyists, to all kinds of people from all different walks of life, most of whom won’t say 'space is on the top of my list.' We’re going to see people all over the world engaging with this. The biggest space societies in the world have about 100,000 members. We expect to have millions, and possibly many more, engaging with Uwingu products every year. We think we’ve got a concept that breaks the mold for how you support space activities, but it’s a little indirect.
"So here’s the way it works: If our IndieGogo crowdsourcing campaign is successful, and we have enough money to launch the company, we’ll debut the website. We’ll have a party. People will come to the website and spend their money. We’ll pay our bills, and we’ll put what’s left in the Uwingu Fund. Our target is to put half the revenue into the fund, and pay our bills from the other half. The fund starts to build up, so we’ll have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars in the fund. Then we’ll do calls for proposals. We will announce to the research and education community that proposals for funding will be due on a certain date. Then we’ll have review panels select the best, and we’ll fund them. And every few months, we’ll do this again, and again, and again.
"We’ll disburse money as a 'fifth lane' in the highway. From the researchers’ point of view, it looks just like another grant program. We can be their salvation in tough times, and their accelerator in good times."
Q: It sounds as if this would be some sort of mobile-device app, or Facebook game.
A: "This is all about suspense, Alan. Look, it’s no worse than Dean Kamen with the Segway. Before the secret was revealed, he wouldn’t tell you what it was, and he wouldn’t tell you what it’s not. If we tell people now, when it’s announced, they’ll say it's old news."
Q: All right, fair enough. Now, when you’re talking about support for research, it sounds as if you’re not getting a spacecraft going, but that the things you'll be funding are more in line with doing research studies.
A: "We envision supporting graduate students, and researchers, and educators — not just public outreach types, but also high school teachers, science departments in grammar school, the whole spectrum. We don't imagine being able to fund entire space expeditions, but we might be able to enhance missions. Maybe it's an instrument on a Google Lunar X Prize mission, or on a suborbital space mission. Or we might be able to help somebody build a prototype so they can propose an instrument for a NASA mission. If we’re so successful that we can generate something on the order of a billion dollars a year for the Uwingu Fund, then obviously we’ll get into the mission game. But our goal is to have a grant fund that has millions or tens of millions of dollars each year. We think that's a very high goal. Anything can be proposed, and we’ll pick and choose based on what we can afford and where we can make the biggest impact."
Q: You’ve been on the other side of the desk, as an associate administrator at NASA. How do you think NASA might feel about Uwingu?
A: "We've spoken to a few high-level people at NASA about it, and their perspective on doing this is 'absolutely.' We’re not competing with NASA, we’re adding extra capacity. I’ve heard nothing negative. I can tell you that if I was there and somebody came up with this idea, I’d say 'Thank God,' because it means when we have a cost overrun and we have to make a cut in some project, people have somewhere to turn."
Q: I had a few questions on the other projects you’re working on – for example, the Pluto stamp campaign?
A: "The campaign is over, and now the ball is in our court to turn in the proposal to the Post Office. I expect that proposal will be turned in before August is complete. Then we don’t expect to hear anything until 2015. We just have to sit and wait."
A: "The spacecraft is very healthy. The team is extremely busy building both the main-encounter sequence and the backup, the bailout trajectory. We’re also hunting for more moons and looking for Kuiper Belt objects to fly by after Pluto. We are so busy as a team that people are working nights and weekends to be ready for 2015. The spacecraft is in hibernation right now. We’ll be waking it up on Jan. 6 for about a month. While we’re in hibernation, we take cruise science data on the interplanetary medium. We talk to it once a week, on Monday mornings, to make sure everything is fine. And that’s about it."
A: "We’re making plans for the next meeting for researchers in the Boulder area next June. We had 200 people the first time, and we doubled it to over 400 this year. Things are heating up."
Q: Now that the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity mission is under way, people are talking about the cost of planetary science missions, and what the prospects are for future Mars missions. What do you think is the right thing to do?
A: "Well, people are very worried about sequestration and making things worse, but the right thing to do is a combination of more funding and better cost control. We’d get a lot more done with that one-two punch. Realistically, I don’t think there’s any realistic scenario where NASA grows dramatically. But I do think that private space efforts are going to give us a lot of new options. You’re starting to see the focus move from just launch vehicles and capsules to science areas — like suborbital, like what Planetary Resources is doing. I think you’ll see more things like that. I’ve heard of some things that are in the works that are just amazing. And so I’m very optimistic that commercial space is going to give us a much broader space economy.
"You know, the military isn’t the only purchaser of airplanes. There are also cargo lines and airlines, agricultural uses, even tourists. Hopefully, space efforts in the 21st century will grow in the same way to become a very diverse set of markets — including in the science world."