The Week in Amateur Space - January 12

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. 

[Sorry about the delay. The Internet ate my original draft. Save often, save often....]

Enabling Amateur Space Exploration

Kotaku reported on a new form of space exploration - a simulation of the Milky Way in the online game Elite: Dangerous. The development team created 150,000 star systems that players visit during the game. Automatic code used science-based rules to populate the rest of our 400-billion star galaxy. The First Great Expedition is a team of over 1,000 players -  among them amateur astronomers, professional astrophysicists, and at least one former Nasa scientist - who set a goal to map the entire virtual galaxy. 

What does it mean for amateurs? Virtual exploration like this adds another way for the public to experience the wonders of our galaxy. We can look through telescopes on dark, clear nights. We can take pictures with online telescopes or download pictures captured by professional observatories. Now we can take part in a community that is sharing in the experience of exploration. And who knows what things the Elite: Dangerous software created? It’s entirely possible that it’s science-based rules created strange virtual star systems or nebulae that actually exist.

A Georgia Tech business school professor studied 7 Zooniverse crowdsourced science projects. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1408907112), Henry Sauermann reported that most of the work is done by a handful of volunteers. In Georgia Tech's press release Sauermann emphasized the critical role engagement plays in a citizen science project: 

It’s going to be difficult to get people to participate in topics that don’t seem interesting or important to society. There may be areas of science that seem boring or unimportant. If asked to help with such projects, people may just prefer to watch television.

Having said that, the projects’ volunteers contributed almost 130,000 hours of their time - the equivalent of $1,500,000 in labor costs - showing how crowdsourcing can produce science that traditional student labor never could.

What does it mean for amateurs? Sauermann’s work may lead to more crowdsourced science projects. Much of the published research on the power of crowdsourcing in science comes from the people running the projects - especially Zooniverse-related scientists. Sauermann’s work provides independent confirmation of these other studies while providing a realistic assessment of the approach’s strengths and weaknesses. That helps reassure more scientists that citizen science can be a useful part of their research tool kit.

 

Exploring Deep Space

Last week was the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Several announcements during AAS225 had amateur implications.

Teachers from Nitarp's 2014 class attended AAS225 to present their research in poster sessions alongside professional astrophysicists while the incoming 2015 class got their first glimpse of a scientific conference. Source: Nasa/Ipac/CalTech

Teachers from Nitarp's 2014 class attended AAS225 to present their research in poster sessions alongside professional astrophysicists while the incoming 2015 class got their first glimpse of a scientific conference. Source: Nasa/Ipac/CalTech

The Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program brought a dozen high school science teachers to AAS225 to present the results of their year-long astrophysics research projects. Minnesota’s West Central Tribune highlighted local teacher Rob Palmer’s participation in the conference. The Estes Park Trail Gazette featured the teacher-student team from Estes Park High School who used infrared space telescope data to find objects the pros never knew existed. [For more details, read my article about Nitarp

Ohio State University’s All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae announced that it had detected 89 supernovae since it started in May 2014. The Assassin project (that’s how they pronounce the acronym ASS-SN) six automated telescopes to find stellar explosions in the local universe. The project has two implications for amateur astronomers. Each of the project’s “telescopes” uses a 400mm Nikon telephoto lens. [Buy a couple of these $12,000 lenses from Amazon if you really really want to support Small Steps to Space!] Although pricey, it shows that real science is within reach of amateur equipment. The Assassin project also depends on amateur astronomers to conduct follow-up observations to confirm supernova discoveries.

WorldWide Telescope has been used by researchers, educators and the public to explore the universe since its release in 2008. In 2015, WWT will become an open source project, supported by the broad community of users and developers. This video captures the past and future of this exciting project.

Microsoft Research announced that its World Wide Telescope project is going open source. Microsoft created WWT as a virtual telescope tool that students, amateur astronomers, and professional astrophysicists could use to visualize deep space objects. It taps into archives from major observatories and space telescopes to generate images across the electromagnetic spectrum. The OpenWWT Consortium will transition the virtual astronomy project from Microsoft Research to independently pursue its 3-fold mission:

  1. Advancing astronomical research
  2. Improving formal and informal astronomy education
  3. Enhancing public outreach

If you want to learn how to study supernovae and other variable star science, then register for the American Association of Variable Star Observers’ online courses. Named after the organization’s most prolific female contributor, the Carolyne Hurless Online Institute for Continuing Education in Astronomy program (Choice) covers a range of topics from the basics of visual observation, to collecting data with a DSLR, to using the AAVSO’s analytical tools. The courses help AAVSO members improve their scientific contributions and make the AAVSO’s database more useful for professional astronomers 


The infrared glow emitted by the disk of dust and debris surrounding a young star (masked in the center) may someday form planets. Source: Nasa/Esa/Univ. of Arizona/HST/GO 12228 Team

The infrared glow emitted by the disk of dust and debris surrounding a young star (masked in the center) may someday form planets. Source: Nasa/Esa/Univ. of Arizona/HST/GO 12228 Team

Nasa announced early results from its Disk Detectives crowdsourced astronomy project. By turning to citizen scientists, the space agency hopes to identify the disks of debris surrounding young stars for further research in planetary formation. Since the project’s launch, 28,000 participants have contributed over 1,000,000 classifications. As Nasa astrophysicist and Disk Detective principal investigator Marc Kuchner said in the press release.

This is absolutely mind-boggling. We’ve already broken new ground with the data, and we are hugely grateful to everyone who has contributed to Disk Detective so far.

The project will run through 2018 as Nasa adds more data from its infrared space telescopes, so there’s still time to make your own contribution.

Exploring the Solar System

The Planetary Society posted another asteroid-hunter update from a Shoemaker Grant recipient. The grant program funds amateur astronomers who conduct scientific observations of asteroids and comets. In this update, Brian Warner describes his research comparing near Earth asteroids with a control group of main belt asteroids.

A fireball streaked over Bucharest, Romania, reported the American Meteor Society. Several security cameras caught the fireball passing overhead.

Mars One Monday

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

A prototype of the Seed Project's cultivation chamber which may some day grow plants on Mars. Source: Seed Project

A prototype of the Seed Project's cultivation chamber which may some day grow plants on Mars. Source: Seed Project

Mars One selected a Portuguese experiment for its 2018 robotic Mars lander. Seed is a greenhouse that will test techniques for growing plants on Mars. In the press release Mars One Chief Technical Office Arno Wielders said, “Seed itself is uniquely inspiring since this would be the first time a plant will be grown on Mars.”

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

Exploring the Planet Earth

GeoNet's crowdsourced map of the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck New Zealand on January 7. Source: GeoNet

GeoNet's crowdsourced map of the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck New Zealand on January 7. Source: GeoNet

3,100 people on New Zealand's South Island reported a magnitude 6 earthquake to GeoNet. The crowdsourced data lets GeoNet's seismologists map the effects of earthquakes and improve emergency response.

New Zealand’s weather service also relies on crowdsourcing. Built on the British MetOffice’s Window On Weather service, the Your Weather service aggregates data from personal weather stations to provide more accurate snapshots of weather conditions between the official weather stations.

The Post Independent wrote about how the National Weather Service relies on amateurs. Colorado’s geography makes weather prediction difficult as the atmosphere interacts with the hills and mountains of western Colorado and eastern Utah. The professional meteorologists depend on its own network of volunteer storm spotters and the amateur weather stations of the Cocorahs network.

By combining the contributions of thousands of volunteers, Albert Yu-Min Lin's team created maps of potential Mongol burial sites which they then examined using drones and ground-penetrating radar. Source: Lin et al via Plos One

By combining the contributions of thousands of volunteers, Albert Yu-Min Lin's team created maps of potential Mongol burial sites which they then examined using drones and ground-penetrating radar. Source: Lin et al via Plos One

Space archeologist and National Geographic Explorer Albert Yu-Min Lin published a paper on Plos One (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114046) about his crowdsourced search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. 10,000 volunteers reviewed 6,000 square kilometers of satellite images. The resulting field expedition confirmed 55 ancient sites.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about SkyTruth’s use of satellite data to monitor fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. The article appears in the Post-Gazette’s PowerSource, an energy-focused microsite sponsored by Chevron. In the interests of balanced reporting, the article also includes links to an oil industry-sponsored forum where property owners talk about the money they make from licensing drilling rights.

Nigerian Space Agency scientist Olawale Oluwafemi explains how teachers and students around the world collect rainfall measurements for Nasa. It’s part of Globe, Nasa’s Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program, which enlists international teams of students to help the space agency’s climate research. As Oluwafemi explains:

Not only will this data give us a better picture of global precipitation. It will help advance our understanding of Earth’s water and energy cycles and improve forecasting of extreme events like floods, droughts, landslides and hurricanes.

Amateur Microgravity Research

The middle and high school science experiments destroyed in last year’s Antares explosion finally reached the International Space Station last week. Universe Today ran this report from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program’s pre-launch briefing. Local press ran several reports like these from Minnesota, Michigan, and British Columbia.

The SSEP is already working on Mission 7 which will launch later this year. Among the experiments scheduled for launch, Pennsylvania 5th graders will study the sense of balance while Iowa 9th graders will study peanut allergies.

Making Spaceships

BurpG hopes to change the nature of suborbital research with their hybrid rocket technology. Source: Boston University Propulsion Group

BurpG hopes to change the nature of suborbital research with their hybrid rocket technology. Source: Boston University Propulsion Group

Undergraduate students in the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group successfully completed a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. BurpG needed an extra $10,000 to complete development of its Starscraper reusable suborbital rocket. Its hybrid engine will provide a smoother, less stressful ride into space and may lower the cost of suborbital research. The students raised over $17,000. “Our inaugural launch is going to feature CanSats, small satellites developed by college and high school students,” the team reported during their Reddit Ask-me-anything session.

Lubbock Online wrote about the local Texas teens participating in the Zero Robotics contest. They have partnered with an Italian team. Fortunately their shared language - the C programming language - is all they need to control robots on the space station. The New Jersey Herald also ran an article about its local space roboticists.

Japanese amateur satellite Artsat2 went silent last week, but not before setting a record for the most distant amateur radio transmission. Ham radio operators detected its signal as the satellite orbited the Sun over 1,000,000 km away.

British aerospace technology company React Engineering is sending student research into the stratosphere on high-altitude balloons. In Cumbria featured the local teens competing in the near space contest.

One of the creators of $50SAT, a prototype low-cost satellite, told Southgate Amateur Radio News about his tests of a low cost radio tracker for future amateur satellites.

The Advisor & Source visited a Michigan high school building hardware for Nasa. By participating in Hunch (High schools students United with Nasa to Create Hardware), the students get to use their machining skills to make panels, handles, and other replacement parts for the International Space Station. "I knew it could test what I know and expand what I know, and it is a cool way of doing it," student Brandon Wright said. "Now I can put it on a resume that I created parts for Nasa.”