The Week in Amateur Space - December 8

If you follow me on Twitter, you get amateur space news as it happens. Every week I summarize the reports - in over 140 characters - of the many different ways people like you explore space. 

Exploring Deep Space

It’s Full of Stars: The American Association of Variable Star Observers and the British Astronomical Association agreed to share their members’ observations of variable stars - stars whose brightness changes over short timescales. Amateur participation has been an essential component of variable star astronomy for more than a century. The sheer number of amateurs, especially when acting in coordinated campaigns, produce a quantity of data that professionals struggle to get from traditional observatories. Even in these days of all-sky surveys, amateurs often help fill in the gaps the professionals miss. The AAVSO will maintain the combined database which now exceeds 27,000,000 observations dating back to 1862.

Build a $200 Planet Detector: The IEEE Spectrum demonstrated the accessibility of amateur exoplanet observing. An exoplanet - a planet orbiting another star - blocks some of the starlight as it passes between the star and observers on Earth. Scientists with the Kepler Space Telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets by measuring changes in stellar brightness. But anyone can measure an exoplanet without sophisticated technology. In his article, IEEE Spectrum senior editor David Schneider built his planet-spotting rig with a used DSLR and telephoto lens. 

College Nights by Starlight: Collegerank’s 25 Best College Astronomy Observatories will be a big help for students considering astronomy as a career. From historically significant facilities like the 176-year old Hopkins Observatory at Williams College and CalTech’s Palomar Observatory to more recent developments like the Texas A&M Astronomical Observatory and the College of San Mateo Observatory, you have a long menu of choices. 

Exploring the Solar System

Dark fans of dust form on the Martian surface frost during the spring thaws only to disappear with summer's arrival. The Planet Four project crowdsources maps fans tin HiRise images like these. (Click image to see full-sized or follow the link for more details) Credit: Nasa/JPL/University of Arizona

Don’t Forget the Martian Robots: Scientists with Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter want your help studying Martian weather. Go to the Planet Four citizen science site to map the tell-tale signs of the spring thaw. Check out Universe Today’s gallery of images that you’ll analyse. Or read my article about Planet Four.

Catching Cosmic Rays in Space: British students' orbiting cosmic ray detector achieved first light, the Langston Star Center announced last week. Students with Simon Langton Grammar School designed Lucid, the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector, based on the Large Hadron Collider’s particle detectors. It uses an array of sensors to measure the intensity and direction of cosmic rays as well as high-energy particles from the Sun. Nasa uses the sensors to measure radiation levels inside the International Space Station, but the students are the first to use the sensors for space science. Not only will they will make the data available to the scientific community, schools taking part in the Cern@School program will have access to Lucid’s data to enhance their studies of physics. You can read my article about Lucid for more information.

El Sonido de las Tormentas Solares: A team of Colombian science hackers built a diy radio telescope so a musician could jam with the Sun during Colombia's first Science Hack Day

It’s Heading Right at Us: The Washington Post recapped meteor sightings from the capitol area. More than 230 people across the northeastern US and eastern Canada saw a fireball streak across the night sky. Get the latest details from the American Meteor Society’s event page.

Coding Space

A mockup of the Ardusat educational satellite. Credit: Ardusat

A mockup of the Ardusat educational satellite. Credit: Ardusat

Hacking Volcanoes from Space: Auburn, Washington’s Rainier Middle School students will program an educational satellite to monitor risks from volcanoes and mudslides from orbit. They are one of 15 teams chosen to participate in the AstroSat Challenge run by the crowdfunded Ardusat educational satellite project. Ardusat now has two CubeSats orbiting Earth which students program to collect real-world data from space. The AstroSat Challenge gives the winning schools free development kits to test their code here on Earth. Northrop Grumman and the Association of Space Explorers - an organization of almost 400 astronauts and cosmonauts - sponsored the competition.

Robots are Bigger in Texas: The Lone Star State joined the Zero Robotics programming contest this year and the Wichita Falls 4H club placed 3rd. For the first time Texas middle and high schools are writing code to control robots on the International Space Station. Texas 4H clubs have a tradition of promoting robotics and programming among the state’s teens which let the Wichita Falls team of middle school students perform so well and contribute to the 2nd place team nationally. 

Carnegie Mellon University's student-built lunar rover Andy. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University's student-built lunar rover Andy. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

A Scotty Space Engineer Talks: In an interview with the Winston-Salem Journal interviewed North Carolina native and CMU undergraduate John Mann, Jr, talks about writing a lunar rover’s control software. While the teams competing in the Google Lunar X-Prize contest to send a robotic probe to the Moon are about as professional as it gets, undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University did most of the work designing the rover for the Astrobotics team. In the interview Mann discusses how he chose his career path and the role these private Moon missions will play in space exploration.

Making Spaceships

Teens Fight Radiation with Orion’s Shield: While the media’s coverage of Nasa’s Orion test flight focused on the implications for the space agency’s astronaut program, Orion's flight also carried a Virginia high school's student experiments. They won Lockheed Martin’s Exploration Design Challenge by creating the best design for a radiation shield. They built their experiment over the summer and it flew inside the Orion capsule. The students will analyse the data to see how well the shields worked as Orion passed through the Van Allen radiation belts.

Rockets Above the Fruited Plains: The University of North Dakota’s undergraduate rocket team lands Nasa’s Student Launch competition for the sixth year in a row. The students have to design and build a high-performance rocket and scientific payload which they will launch next April in competition with 27 other schools.

Former Nasa astronaut Greg Johnson at Esero Ireland's kickoff of the 2015 CanSat season. Credit: Esero-Ireland

Former Nasa astronaut Greg Johnson at Esero Ireland's kickoff of the 2015 CanSat season. Credit: Esero-Ireland

Ireland's Next Rocketeers: Former Nasa astronaut Greg Johnson helped Ireland kick off the 2015 CanSat Season. Secondary school teams across Ireland will compete to build soda can sized instrument packages launched 1 kilometer on high-performance rockets. The winners will represent Ireland in the Europe-wide championship in Portugal next year.


The Tiger and the Satellite: Amsat India, the subcontinent’s amateur satellite organization has partnered with an Indian space startup to build its next amateur radio satellite. Their partnership reflects the intersection of two trends in space exploration. One is the growing role of the amateur market in driving space development. When the Indian Space Research Organization - India’s space agency - wanted to increase its expertise in low-cost space technology, it decided to meet the underserved community of amateur radio operators. Compared to their counterparts in the Americas and Europe, Indian radio amateurs had few options for using space-based communications. The result was India’s first amateur radio satellite: the geostationary HamSat. Now the second trend - India’s growing role in space exploration - has created new opportunities for the country’s technology industry. Calling itself India’s first private space organization, Dhruva Space is an entrepreneurial start-up that develops satellites to meet the growing demand in India and around the world for small satellites. It will develop the primary systems of HamSatII while the volunteers at Amsat India develop the scientific and amateur radio instruments. 

News From the Pros

We're All Feds Now: Amateur space explorers can expect more opportunities to take part in America’s space and Earth exploration programs. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy kicked off a program to expand citizen participation in government. Federal agencies will use the Open Innovation Toolkit to design citizen science, challenge prizes, and crowdsourcing projects.