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The Curious Adventures of an Astronomer-Turned-Crowdfunder

Personal threats, legal challenges, and NASA’s objections were just a few of the hurdles Travis Metcalfe faced when he set up a crowdfunding website to help pay for his astronomical research.

  • March 2, 2015

If you want to name a star or buy a crater on the moon or own an acre on Mars, there are numerous websites that can help. The legal status of such “ownership” is far from clear but the services certainly allow for a little extraterrestrial fun.

There is one nonprofit organization, however, that uses this kind of crowdsourcing to raise funds for astronomical research.

And instead of selling stars or craters that it does not own, the White Dwarf Research Corporation allows anyone to adopt a star on the clear understanding that they do not own it. This is rather like the adopt-a-highway schemes run in many countries to help fund the cleanup of roads.

Today, Travis Metcalfe, an astronomer at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, tells of the many adventures he has had in setting up and running the White Dwarf Research Corporation. His story is an entertaining read.

The tale begins with Metcalfe’s interest in characterizing stars found by the Kepler space observatory, which is designed to look for earthlike planets orbiting other suns. However, the job of characterizing stars, as opposed to the planets, is being undertaken by European researchers and there is no funding available for U.S. researchers.

So Metcalfe started the White Dwarf Research Corporation in 2008 with the goal of quickly raising $1.5 million to establish an endowment that would fund this research. What actually happened is something quite different.

In total, the corporation has raised about $150,000, which is no mean feat but not quite as much as he had hoped. “We still raised enough funding over the years to help students and early career scientists present their research at annual workshops, and to help some of our colleagues in developing countries pay the publication charges for their research papers,” he says.

And there have been plenty of adventures on the way. The donations to the website have peaked at several points throughout its history, often coinciding with publicity of one kind or another. For example, in mid-2008 the site had a major spike in donations following a post that appeared on the tech news website Slashdot.

This was a clear boost but a few days later, Metcalfe and his team received an email from NASA’s principal investigator for the Kepler mission, William Borucki, asking them to make clear that the project was not authorized or endorsed by NASA.

Another challenge came from the Carl Sagan Foundation which objected to the program’s use of the term “Pale Blue Dot project,” saying that it constituted unauthorized use of copyright material. (In 1994, Carl Sagan published a book called Pale Blue Dot.) This required a significant amount of time to sort out.

The largest surge in donations came in 2014 after a group of Ukrainian astronomers dedicated a star to the Russian President Vladimir Putin using an unflattering nickname. In July that year, the insight went viral and one morning Metcalfe received a call from a reporter at the Moscow Times asking for comment. “I told him ‘Free speech is now written in the stars. We have no plans to censor any of these star adoptions. We appreciate the support for science,’ ” he says.

That quote had significant consequences. “Several patriotic Russians were disappointed with our decision, and made personal threats against me,” he reveals.

Metcalfe’s story is a fascinating insight into the role that crowdfunding can play in astronomy. His essay is peppered with useful advice and tips for anyone intending to follow a similar route.

If you fancy adopting a star, while supporting astronomical research in the process, there are various packages on sale from the White Dwarf Corporation’s website.

Why not give it a try at: http://adoptastar.whitedwarf.org/

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1502.07393 : Crowdfunding Astronomy with Google Sky

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