The Week in Amateur Space News - Nov 29

If you follow me on Twitter, you get my tweets as soon as I get any amateur space news. Every week I summarize the reports to give you a single snapshot - in over 140 characters - of how many different ways people like you explore space. 

News From Small Steps To Space

A crowdsourced simulation of one of the Milky Way's tidal streams - the shredded remains of another galaxy. Source: MilkyWay@Home

Earlier this year I interviewed Dr. Heidi Newberg, principle investigator for the MilkyWay@Home distributed computing project. At any given time, over 25,000 people (170,000 over the project’s lifetime) donate their computers’ spare processing time to run simulations of the Milky Way’s collisions with other galaxies.

Last week Dr. Newberg and her co-investigators posted to The pre-print is for a paper originally published in the Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union (doi: 10.1017/S1743921313006273), the paper reviews MilkyWay@Home’s results and explains why crowdsourced computing makes such a difference: 

The advantages of MilkyWay@home are that we have our very own supercomputer and worldwide outreach program. The only hardware we need to upgrade on a regular basis is a server and a development platform…. We have shown [that MilkyWay@Home’s results] are as good, and usually better, than the results we got from one rack of a supercomputer…. The time to converge to the correct solution is about the same for these two platforms, but we can run many more simultaneous jobs on MilkyWay@home (and we don’t have to wait for time in the queue).

My interview with Dr. Newberg focused on the way the MilkyWay@Home community had come together to support the project after it lost its NSF funding. In the past week MilkyWay@Home crossed the $40,000 threshold they needed to keep running for another year.

Weekly Recap

Exploring Deep Space


Altcoins For Science. Some of the money raised for the MilkyWay@Home project came from a cryptocurrency called Gridcoin. Cryptocurrencies harness the power of millions of personal computers around the world to create their value systems. The collected power of the Bitcoin network, the most popular of these currencies, outperforms the top 500 supercomputers in the world - combined. CryptocoinsNews wrote (this article and this article) about the Gridcoin project and the biology-focused FoldingCoin project that apply that computing power to science. Gridcoin creates an alternate cryptocurrency to support distributed computing science projects like MilkyWay@Home that operate under UC-Berkeley’s Boinc system.

Amateur Exoplanet Hunters. One of the most exciting developments in 21st Century astronomy has been the discovery of planets orbiting other stars. While the pros get all of the attention thanks to observatories like the Kepler space telescope and the Alma radio telescope array, amateurs have a role to play as well. Connecticut public radio station WNPR reported on amateur exoplanet hunters in the Planet Hunters citizens science project. Thousands of people around the world scan Kepler data for signs of planets the professional project has missed. So far they have identified over 60 potential candidates with several confirmed exoplanets. IEEE Spectrum explained how easy it is for anyone to observe exoplanets - all you need is a 10 year old DSLR and telephoto lens. 

Exploring The Solar System

They’re Coming Right At Us! Continuing the amateur astronomy theme, the Planetary Society opened a call for its Shoemaker Near Earth Object Grant program. While professional observatories make almost all of the asteroid discoveries, they can’t make the dozens of follow-up observations needed to track the asteroids’ orbits. Serious amateur astronomers can apply for Shoemaker grants to upgrade the equipment they use to collect data on asteroids. The Planetary Society typically awards $3,000-$10,000 to worthy amateur astronomers.

Stormy Weather… In Space. Sky & Telescope Magazine ran this update on amateur observations of the new storms on Uranus. First seen by professional astronomers using the Keck II telescope, amateur astronomers in Australia and France have made their own infrared observations of the storms. Although not as detailed, the amateurs can make observations more frequently - giving pros access to regular weather reports from the 7th planet.

Andy, the lunar rover developed by undergraduates. Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Andy, the lunar rover developed by undergraduates. Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Fly Me To The Moon. Although it may seem like the Moon doesn’t get any love these days, it’s a regular target for emerging space powers… like Carnegie Mellon University. CMU unveiled Andy, a lunar rover developed mostly by students. Astrobotic Technology will use the rover in its entry in the Google Lunar X-Prize - the race to be the first privately-funded lunar mission. Space agencies are still in the Moon game, however. Nasa just announced its Cube Quest Challenge - a chance to send scientific CubeSats to the Moon on the 2017 Orion test flight. The contest is open to anyone - and offers up to $5,000,000 in prize money. 

Watching The Red Planet. Of course, amateurs don’t have to make their own observations - anyone has access to the data streaming in from space. While scientists were busy processing data to understand how the comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring interacted with Mars, amateur astronomer Ted Stryk processed the data into a series of images that help the public understand what all the fuss was about. Check out the Planetary Society's blog for more

Spend A Fortnight On Mars - Sort Of. A Mars Society tweet announced the 2015-2016 Mars analog research season. Check their volunteer page to see how you could become a crew-member on a 2-week expedition to the Mars Desert Research Station in the deserts of Utah.

Exploring Planet Earth

At Sea No One Can Hear You Fish. The world’s fisheries are coming under increasing pressure as unlicensed ships scoop fish up at unsustainable rates. The Weather Network wrote this article about a new way to fight fish pirates… from space. SkyTruth - the non-profit that uses satellite imagery to track oil spills, fracking, and other environmental causes - has teamed up with Google and Oceana to form Global Fishing Watch. The system uses satellite data from search-and-rescue transponders to identify and track ships that poach international fisheries.

Global Fishing Watch animated 2 years worth of satellite tracking data to show patterns in commercial fishing. (click the image to make it big) Source: Global Fishing Watch

Nice Weather, Eh? Cocorahs, the volunteer network that crowdsources severe weather observations, is expanding in Canada. Exchange Magazine wrote this article about efforts to expand Cocorahs in the Grand River watershed of Ontario. Official weather stations are too far apart to accurately forecast highly localized storms and floods. The Cocorahs system fills in the gaps and lets meteorologists observe the weather on a finer scale.

Making Spaceships

Learning From Rockets. Students at the United Kingdom’s Mendham Primary School got to apply some rocket science as the Diss Express reported. The students celebrated the Philae landing by “launching a model rocket to a height of around 600 metres and later recovering it a mile from the launch site.” Although I’m sure the students didn’t mix measurement systems.

How Many Red Balloons? Staying in the United Kingdom, the educational ballooning company Marsballoon opened applications for its next season. Schools across the UK develop experiments to conduct in the Mars-like environment of the stratosphere. The most recent flight, the Elysium mission, carried 55 experiments from 33 primary and secondary schools to a 31,240 meter altitude. The experiments ranged from simple science demonstrations to investigations of the effect of different shielding techniques on X-ray film.

And Finally. Amateur satellites may be easy and cheap to build, but getting them to space is neither. That may change if a Spanish entrepreneur has his way. Engineering and Technology Magazine spoke with Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales, the CEO of zero2infinity. He wants to launch small satellites into orbit from stratospheric balloons. The balloons do all the work carrying the rocket above 99% of the atmosphere which means the rocket itself can reach orbit without the extra fuel of a ground launch. 

A giant high-altitude balloon will carry the Bloostar into the stratosphere where its engines will ignite and carry small satellites into orbit. Source: Bloostar

A giant high-altitude balloon will carry the Bloostar into the stratosphere where its engines will ignite and carry small satellites into orbit. Source: Bloostar