The Week in Amateur Space - December 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. 

The holiday season makes for a slow news week, but space is always out there - from the fight for dark skies over Canada, to interviews with amateur martians, to the amazing opportunities for middle school student research on the International Space Station.

Enabling Amateur Space Exploration

Nasa astronaut Barry Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station. Credit: Nasa

Nasa astronaut Barry Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station. Credit: Nasa

Nasa printed the first wrench in orbit. The space agency needs better ways of handling repairs if it wants to conduct long-duration deep space missions. Rather than waiting 6 months for a supply launch, for example, astronauts in 2012 had to improvise tools from spare toothbrushes to repair the station's cooling system. 3D printing tools and other parts would make the logistics of space much easier. Nasa partnered with Made in Space to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station earlier this year. Last Monday astronauts uploaded a file to the printer and created the handle for a socket wrench. Made in Space will perform tests on this and other parts to see how microgravity affects the mechanical properties of printed materials.

What does it mean for amateurs?  This is the latest development in the trend towards 3D manufacturing in which hobbyists play a big role. In some ways Nasa is doing the same thing that hobbyists do - playing with different materials and techniques to see how things work. You can print your own wrench using the file on Nasa's 3D Resources site. Later generations of Made in Space printers will allow the public to print their own creations in space. To get a head start on understanding how the space environment affects 3D printed parts, check out this University of North Dakota researcher's proposal for 3D printing "balloonsats" that carry secondary school experiments into the stratosphere where conditions are similar to the surface of Mars.

American and Italian researchers found a new way to reach Mars, reported Universe Today. Traditional "Hohmann transfer" orbits require heavy, powerful rockets and a huge amount of fuel to slow spacecraft before entering orbit around another planet. Hohmann orbits also depend on the position of Earth and the other planet, creating launch windows that limit planners. The newly developed "ballistic transfer" orbits use less fuel by sending the spacecraft a little ahead of the planet and letting the planet's gravity slowly pull the spacecraft in. The new orbits also eliminate launch windows, allowing missions to leave Earth at any time. You can read the technical details in the researchers' arXiv preprint.

What does it mean for amateurs? Anything that lets more countries send more spacecraft to the planets will create opportunities for more citizen science projects like Planet Four that let the public participate in space exploration. In the long term as the decades-old tradition of amateur satellite making evolves to interplanetary projects, low-cost ballistic transfers will play an important role.

An artist's concept of Venus Express passing through the planet's atmosphere. Credit: Esa, C. Carreau

An artist's concept of Venus Express passing through the planet's atmosphere. Credit: Esa, C. Carreau

I'm a little late on this one, but Esa declared the Venus Express mission over on December 16. The spacecraft ran out of fuel after 8 years orbiting Venus and can no longer communicate with Earth. Unless Jaxa's Akatsuki enters orbit in late 2015 - no guarantees since it missed its original orbit in 2006 - Venus won't have any visitors until Esa's BepiColombo mission in 2024. That means a decade-long gap in which planetary scientists' only means of direct observations will be the mountaintop observatories of professional astronomy.

What does it mean for amateurs?  In the high-stakes competition for time on professional telescopes, Venus observations have a low priority. For the next decade, amateur astronomers may be the only ones making regular observations of the second planet. The Venus Express program recruited amateur astronomers to make regular whole-planet observations that they couldn't afford to make on their own. Unfortunately, with the end of Venus Express there's no central database for amateur observations of Venus as there is for the outer planets.

Exploring Deep Space

The Star Phoenix spoke with amateur astronomer Richard Huziak about his fight for dark skies above Saskatoon. He challenges the “myth of light security” - leaving bright lights shining all night does nothing to deter crime. Huziak says better surveillance does more to reduce crime than security lights ever have.

Mars One Monday

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

Mars One candidate Heidi Beemer at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station where she just completed a 2-week simulation of a mission on the red planet. Source: Embry-Riddle University

Mars One candidate Heidi Beemer at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station where she just completed a 2-week simulation of a mission on the red planet. Source: Embry-Riddle University

No news from the Mars One organization, but competition is heating up on social media for the 2018 Mars lander’s university experiment. Media coverage last week seemed to be strongest for project Greenbox (its use of urine gets milage in articles like this) as well as the German effort to use bacteria to create breathable air. (check this Universe Today article)

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

Exploring the Planet Earth

Local press continues to report on Cocorahs’ efforts to expand its network of amateur weather-spotters. Canada's Cocorahs wants to triple the number of observers in Saskatchewan, reports the Leader Post. With a network of 300 amateurs reporting rain and snowfall data, water agencies and emergency responders will better predict snowmelt and flooding. The Hawaiian island of Kauai also needs more people to join its Cocorahs network. The Star Advertiser reports that Cocrahs wants to grow from its current 9 volunteers to about two dozen weather observers. That will produce enough data to track the highly localized thunderstorms that build over the tropical island.

Amateur Microgravity Research

Michigan grandmother Betsy Dole defended student microgravity research in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. She wrote in response to Senator Tom Coburn’s op-ed in which he repeated his claim that taxpayer-funded experiments by school children proves the International Space Station is a waste of money. As Mrs. Dole points out, her granddaughter’s experience “changed her life” - and the thousands of kids who have particpated in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. (To get around the WSJ paywall, google “coburn lost in space” for the original op-ed and “how nasa inspires tomorrows scientists” for Mrs. Dole’s response)

For the record, the kids raise the money themselves - no federal tax dollars are at work. Here’s one example from last week. A local bank gave $1000 to the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School's space mission. This isn't the school's first trip into space - Monty Tech has led its community into space on 5 of SSEP's 8 missions including a Shuttle-based mission in 2011 and SSEP's first mission to the space station in 2012.  

Students at San Antonio’s Hobby Middle School get a second chance at space, reports the Express News. They were among those who watched the Antares rocket explode on the launch pad last October. The accident destroyed their crystal growth experiment, but now they have a second chance thanks to the local community. The San Antonio city council and the Southwest Research Institute donated the $8000 the kids needed to get their experiment to Nasa in time for January’s SpaceX resupply mission. Over 3600 kids have taken part in the Northside Independent School District’s space program - 350 of them directly involved in designing research proposals.

Making Spaceships

Spheres, short for "Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites" help space engineers test satellite control software within the safe confines of the International Space Station. Zero Robotics competitions let middle and high school students in the United States and Esa-member countries program the robots themselves. Credit: Nasa/ISS

Spheres, short for "Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites" help space engineers test satellite control software within the safe confines of the International Space Station. Zero Robotics competitions let middle and high school students in the United States and Esa-member countries program the robots themselves. Credit: Nasa/ISS

Zero Robotics announced the high schools who will program robots on the International Space Station. Multinational teams from Italy, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Russia, Spain, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia have written software to guide robots through a virtual obstacle course inside the space station. The finals will be held January 16 at MIT and the European Space Agency Technical Centre in the Netherlands.

Alabama’s Athens Middle School and Athens High School will build hardware for Nasa, the News Courier reports. The schools have joined Hunch, the selectively acronymed High School Students United with Nasa to Create Hardware program. The schools will integrate Nasa design projects into their science and math curricula.

An early 2014 picoballoon launch. Source: Amateur Radio Victoria

An early 2014 picoballoon launch. Source: Amateur Radio Victoria

Australian amateur radio enthusiasts released a pico-balloon on Saturday. The size of a party balloon, it is strong enough to carry a solar-powered suite of instruments around the world, including GPS tracking, a computer, and radio communications. At last contact on Saturday, the balloon was 8700 meters above the Tasman Sea on a course for New Zealand. Previous efforts reached all the way to Brazil.