Kickstarter campaign hits $50,000 goal

By Julia Liss, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 3, 2013

At midnight Monday, professors from the Department of Aerospace Engineering launched a campaign through crowd-funding web site Kickstarter to fund the development and launch of a new project that it is out of this world.

The professors are working on the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster, which would allow a tiny satellite to go deep into space at a fraction of the cost of current missions. CAT is also trying to earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s fastest university-built satellite.

Kickstarter allows individuals to pledge to donate as little as a dollar towards a cause. Kickstarter recipients can only accept the funds if the campaign meets its fundraising goal in the time they’ve outlined. In fewer than 48 hours, the CAT campaign had exceeded its $50,000 goal.

This is CAT’s second attempt at fundraising through Kickstarter. Another campaign was launched July 4 and lasted about a month, but did not reach its goal.

Engineering Assistant Prof. Benjamin Longmier, who works in the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Lab at the University, is leading the project. He said part of the problem with the group’s last attempt was poor timing and lack of awareness.

“We thought people just who were enthusiastic about space and technology might be the demographic and we saw that mostly to be the case,” Longmier said. “We also thought people from the University of Michigan would be more excited about a Michigan project, but we didn’t have a lot of Michigan people involved and that was surprising, but that was in the summer when no students were around.”

To improve the success for the second campaign, Longmier, along with James Cutler, his partner on the project, enlisted the help of Simon Halpern, a second year MBA student in the Ross School of Business, to “help make it a little more publicly digestible,” he said.

Halpern said he is really excited to be working on the project and thinks the key to the campaign’s success has been reaching out to people who wouldn’t traditionally be interested in space travel.

“There’s still a small crowd of aerospace people who love this stuff and the rest of the world is like ‘whatever,’ ” Halpern said. “But when you start to see what the possibilities of a successful project could be better weather prediction or lower cost of access to space, that’s huge.”

Halpern’s responsibilities have included developing the group’s marketing plan, an outreach plan and managing the social media for the project, which is titled GoBluePlasma. He has also reached out to important alumni such as University alum Dhani Jones, a former NFL star, to help raise awareness for the project.

Jones expressed his interest in space travel and his excitement at helping to work on the design and marketing strategy used for Kickstarter. He said this is his first time being involved in a space-related project and doesn’t think it will be his last.

“If you think about the verge of the next level of exploration, I think space travel is going to be important and that this is part of that understanding of what’s in the distant and beyond,” Jones said.

This isn’t Jones’ first investment in a campus startup. In September, it was announced that he would fund the establishment of a co-op community geared towards entrepreneurship-minded students.

Halpern said he is thrilled and can’t believe how quickly CAT reached its goal. He hopes to continue with the momentum the fundraising has been gaining thus far.

“We would be beside ourselves if we could get to some of our stretch goals to enable us to continue some more advanced scientific research and continue developing the CAT engine at a faster pace with some more exciting options,” Halpern said.