Interest in citizen science and participatory exploration has exploded in recent years. New technologies are making it easier for private citizens to become involved in the scientific process. More and more, the professional scientific community is recognizing the importance of contributions made by dedicated amateurs. Citizen scientists are discovering exoplanets and dinosaurs, monitoring climate and endangered species, and helping to map the human genome.
Space is not just the final frontier. It’s the citizen-science frontier. Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it’s now possible to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf parts – parts you’d find at Radio Shack. The development of low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science.
Citizens in Space is a nonprofit project working with (not for) the companies which are developing these new spacecraft. Our goal is to enable ordinary people to fly in space as citizen astronauts (citizen space explorers) and to enable citizen scientists to fly experiments in space.
In the near future, there will be hundreds of suborbital astronauts, many self-funded, flying every year. Many of these citizen space explorers will want to perform a scientific experiment while they are in space. Citizens in Space will provide a matchmaking service that will connect citizen astronauts who want to perform experiments with citizen scientists who have experiments to fly.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
For the first phase of our project, we have acquired an initial contract for 10 suborbital spaceflights with one of the new space transportation companies — XCOR Aerospace. This represents, to the best of our knowledge, the largest single bulk purchase of suborbital flights to date. We expect to acquire additional flights from XCOR and other companies in the future.
We will be making payload space on these flights available to citizen scientists. Professional researchers will be eligible, too, if they play by our rules. We will fly these experiments free of charge, but any experiment submitted to us must be licensed as open-source hardware. We expect to fly up to 100 small experiments in our initial flight campaign. Our hope is that the experiment hardware developed through this project will be replicated widely by citizen scientists and flown many times on a wide variety of vehicles in the future. For information on the rules for submitting payloads, see the Call for Experiments.
From time to time, we will be publishing experiment ideas on our blog. To view some of our current experiment ideas, click here.
Citizens in Space will also be selecting and training 10 citizen astronaut candidates to fly as payload operators. We have three astronaut candidates already in training. We’ll be recruiting seven more over the next 12 to 24 months.
In the near future, we will be announcing our first Pathfinder Astronaut Training Workshop, conducted in cooperation with our parent organization, the United States Rocket Academy. At the Pathfinder workshops, volunteers will help beta-test the citizen-astronaut training activities we are developing.
Citizen-astronaut candidates will be recruited from among the people who are known to us and active in the Citizens in Space community. They may be citizen scientists who have built experiments for our flights, trainees who have participated in the Pathfinder workshops, or volunteers who have contributed in other ways.
Citizen science challenges
In addition to the general call for experiments, Citizens in Space is planning to offer some cash prizes for specific experiments which we consider to be especially challenging and of particular scientific importance.
High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge
Our first citizen-science challenge is for an experiment suggested to us by a NASA astrobiologist.
High-altitude astrobiology is a field of research that could not be pursued effectively with previous science platforms, but it’s an ideal match for the capabilities of the new suborbital spacecraft. Researchers have learned that the Earth’s biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected – up to 100,000 feet or more. Organisms from these altitudes have been collected by high-altitude balloons, but balloons are not reliable enough to allow systematic sampling on a regular basis.
The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge is offering a $10,000 prize for the development of a microbe-collection system that can fly on a suborbital vehicle (initially the Lynx).
Once this technique is proven, we believe professional researchers will want to repeat the experiment, probably hundreds of times. High-altitude extremophiles have implications for a number of fields, including global epidemiology. In addition to winning the cash prize, the creator of the winning hardware could potentially save millions of lives here on Earth.