The Week in Amateur Space - December 22

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. 

Enabling Amateur Space Exploration

News and events from the professional world that help make amateur space exploration possible.

Dr. Becky Parker wrote about why you’re never too young to be a research scientist for the Royal Society. Parker runs the Simon Langton Grammar School’s Langton Star Centre, a research facility that supports student-led science. She described the school’s orbiting cosmic ray detector, Lucid, and its physics education collaboration with Cern to demonstrate how putting science in the hands of teens sets them on a course for studies and careers in science-related fields. Its next initiative will be a National Centre for Science and Engineering Research in Schools to spread the approach to schools across the United Kingdom.

What does it mean? The pioneering work conducted by Dr. Parker and her students demonstrated how much teenagers can do with the right support. They also show how space exploration is becoming more important to Great Britain’s future by inspiring and motivating students to pursue careers in the sciences.

One bit of positive news for Nasa's amateur and educational space programs is the restoration of the space agency's Education and Public Outreach (EPO) budgets. As Science Magazine reported, the White House zeroed EPO programs from Nasa’s budget as part of a plan to consolidate the federal government’s education and outreach programs. Those plans squashed by congressional opposition, Science reports, Nasa will take a fresh approach that organizes education programs centrally rather than at the mission level.

What does it mean? In theory Nasa’s new approach will be more stable and efficient. When education programs are funded out of individual missions, they risk shutting down when the mission comes to an end. It should also eliminate duplicate efforts and could allow for some programs to expand. Caltech, for example, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory while the Johns Hopkins University manages the Hubble Space Telescope through the Space Telescope Science Institute. Both programs have their own education and outreach programs funded out of the Spitzer and Hubble budgets. A single astrophysics education program would in theory eliminate duplicate staff and the missions’ spectrum biases. With luck, the new approach will bring stability to financially struggling education and citizen science projects like Cosmoquest.

IEEE’s magazine Spectrum reported on a Nasa mission concept for exploring Venus in airships. Nasa’s Langley Research Center released details about Havoc, the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept, earlier this year. Thanks to the thick Venusian atmosphere, an airship flying 50 kilometers above the planet’s surface will fly through conditions similar to Earth at sea-level - except for the almost pure carbon dioxide atmosphere and the clouds of sulphuric acid.

What does it mean? While there’s very little chance that Nasa will get money to conduct this mission it does show that the experience people gain flying weather balloons into the stratosphere could have uses beyond taking cool pictures from the edge of space. If you’re in middle or high school, why not set airship engineer as a career choice? You will stand out among the crowd of rocketeers and the skills you develop can be used in all aspects of space exploration.

Exploring Deep Space

Amateurs explore planets orbiting neighboring stars and the light from distant galaxies - and often help professional scientists in the process.

Radio Galaxy Zoo's interface overlays contour lines representing radio-frequency emissions from galactic jets over infrared images of the same region in space. The crowdsourcing project relies on its volunteers to map the radio signals to their sources - something computers struggle to do. Source: Radio Galaxy Zoo

Radio Galaxy Zoo's interface overlays contour lines representing radio-frequency emissions from galactic jets over infrared images of the same region in space. The crowdsourcing project relies on its volunteers to map the radio signals to their sources - something computers struggle to do. Source: Radio Galaxy Zoo

Radio Galaxy Zoo celebrated its first birthday last week. People around the world help astronomers in the Australia, South Africa, and the United States find the black holes lurking in the center of distant galaxies. Radio Galaxy Zoo asks its volunteers to match two sets of images. The first set of image come from arrays of radio telescopes in the US and Australia. They show the radio-spectrum emissions created by jets of matter shooting out of a galaxy’s center. The other set of images are of the same region of the sky but collected by the Wise and Spitzer infrared space telescopes. Scientists could use automated software, but that only works in the case of simple images where the radio emissions match perfectly with a bright infrared source. Over the past year Radio Galaxy Zoo volunteers have contributed over 931,000 individual classifications. Along the way they are finding extreme galaxies that scientists never suspected existed. (h/t Physics Central)

Amateurs in Washington State are battling to preserve dark skies above the state’s only public observatory, reported the Daily Journal. For many amateur astronomers urban development and light pollution obscure views of they once took for granted. Goldendale Observatory State Park is the home of a 24-inch (61 mm) telescope that four amateur astronomers - only one with a college degree - built in the 1960s. The observatory has several smaller telescopes, all of which the public can use to view the planets, nebulae, and galaxies. The International Dark Sky Association certified Goldendale Observatory as a Dark Sky Park - one of only 20 in the world - for its dark night skies. As the Daily Journal reported, however, poorly structured and enforced regulations have led to higher levels of light pollution that threaten those dark skies. Public officials recognize the benefit that the observatory’s 20,000 annual visitors provide the region and have begun fixing publicly-owned lights.

Exploring the Solar System

Technology lets amateur track asteroids, monitor weather on Jupiter, or solar storms erupting the Sun.

Lunar Mission One completed a £677,000 ($1,000,000) Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The project plans to send a robotic lander to the Moon’s south pole where it will drill 20-100 meters into the surface, uncovering a more detailed view of the Moon’s history. The project doesn’t involve the public as directly as Kickstarter projects like Arkyd or KickSat - the project’s backers only get to send digital files to the Moon in the lander’s “digital memory box”. Endorsements from British science luminaries like physicist Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Brian Cox, planetary scientist Ian Crawford, space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, and more gave the project a level of credibility that other

An artist's concept of Lunar Mission One's robotic lander which may reach the Moon in 2028 thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign. Source: Lunar Mission One

An artist's concept of Lunar Mission One's robotic lander which may reach the Moon in 2028 thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign. Source: Lunar Mission One

Mars One Monday

A weekly news round-up about the project to send people on a one-way journey to Mars

Several weeks ago Mars One announced the 10 university finalists hoping to send an experiment to Mars on its 2018 robotic mission. It will base its selection on support from the Mars One Community and the broader public through social media. Lettuce on Mars and Seed appear to be the frontrunners based on Twitter and Google+ mentions. Both projects hope to demonstrate the potential for growing plants as a source of oxygen and food for future astronauts. Mars One candidate Josh Richards is working with another contender, the University of Western Australia’s Helena project, to demonstrate the production of breathable air from the Martian atmosphere. 

In other news:

The press spoke with several Mars One candidates in the past week:


Exploring the Planet Earth

It's easy to forget that Earth is also a planet. It's also easy to study its many planetary processes - and help science along the way.

The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences developed a smartphone app that measures Earth’s magnetic field. Available for Android and iPhones, CrowdMag taps into a smartphone’s magnetometers. The researchers want to see if the sensors can pick up changes in the magnetic field caused by solar storms. The world’s lead agency for space weather forecasting, Noaa depends on a network of geomagnetic sensors separated by hundred - even thousands - of kilometers. If the smartphones work, the crowdsourced approach will help scientists understand how the entire planet responds.

Did You Feel It crowdsourced over 350 earthquake reports along the border of Virginia and North Carolina. The magnitude 3.0 quake struck 13 kilometers beneath the town of Lenoir, prompting people to describe their experience to the US Geological Survey's reporting system. Half of the reports arrived within the first hour, giving USGS scientists a quick snapshot of the earthquake's intensity and extent.

Cocorahs, the crowdsourced weather detector, is recruiting new members in Hawaii and Texas.  Shawn Daul, the National Weather Service’s coordinator for Kauai told The Garden Island that “in cases of extreme localized storms, your local report could help save lives.” Cocorahs’ Texas coordinator William Runyon told the Graham Leader that “volunteers for CoCoRaHS do not need a meteorology degree.” 

Registration opened for Girls on Ice, a wilderness science education program for teenage girls sponsored by the University of Alaska, the National Science Foundation, and the Alaska Climate Science Center. The young women spend 2 weeks exploring the glaciers and alpine landscapes of Alaska and Washington State.

Amateur Microgravity Research

As it gets easier to send stuff into space, more people will do it. See how students are using microgravity to research physics and biology.

October’s explosion of the Antares launch vehicle destroyed more than food for the International Space Station’s astronauts. It also destroyed microgravity experiments developed by American and Canadian teens. The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program managed to get replacement experiments rushed to Nasa for the December SpaceX resupply mission (now delayed into January). The Ocean City Gazette and public TV station WHYY spoke with Ocean City High School students about the Antares launch and what it means to get a second chance.

WHYY also ran a story about a student microgravity experiment already on the space station. Project Merccuri collected bacteria from locations around the United States including Oregon’s Chapman Hill Elementary School, the San Antonio Spurs’ AT&T Center, and Chicago’s Field Museum. The bacteria are growing on the ISS (under controlled conditions) to see how the critters grow in microgravity. The project will incorporate the results into materials teachers can use in their science classes. WHYY spoke to the project’s leader Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter and Science Cheerleader. She explained how Merccuri is more than a science demonstration. Scientists will use data on the 48 samples sent into space - as well as the 4,000 samples collected around the country - in their research. You can read the latest update on the Science Cheerleader website.

Making Spaceships

See how amateurs continue the tradition of rocketry and satellite making that began at the dawn of the Space Age.

Amsat North America announced an amateur satellite technology development initiative. The initial $5000 will help develop microwave communications and spacecraft control systems suitable for amateur satellite projects. (h/t eHam)

An MIT press release announced the 2015 Global Space Balloon Challenge. Organized by the university’s engineering students, the GSBC invites anyone around the world to launch a balloon into the stratosphere next April. For “around $500 and a few weekends of work” people of all ages can send cameras and sensors to the edge of space. GSBC will award prizes in categories like best design and highest altitude. Last year’s challenge attracted 60 teams in 18 countries. They hope to recruit 300 teams for this year’s contest.

More down to Earth, the 40 students at Russellville Middle School’s robotics team are aiming for the national rocketry championships. The team designed a robot that has advanced to the final rounds of the Best Robotics Competition. “I am most proud of this year’s team because of their great video and the kids learned how to use our CNC machine,” teacher Lee Brownell told the Franklin County Times. Now they are turning their skills towards building a rocket to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge next summer.