The Week in Amateur Space - January 19

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

Caren Cooper on the Plos CitizenSci blog reacted to the previous week’s report on participation in citizen science. A Georgia Tech business professor studied Zooniverse crowdsourcing projects and found that, although millions of people take part, most of the work is done by a relatively small group of volunteers. Cooper argues that even the smallest contribution advances scientific research to accomplish great things.

What does it mean for amateurs? Much of the press coverage the Georgia Tech study received focused on the outsized role of a small minority of volunteers. That isn’t different from any other volunteer activity. The number of amateurs doing scientific research is smaller than the number of amateurs involved in local clubs which itself is smaller than the number of people with telescopes. The real story, as Cooper points out, is that the open, participatory nature of citizen science projects gives the public opportunities to take part and, if they want, to get deeply involved in real scientific research.

That's no moon... oh, wait. Yes it is. Nothing amateur related. Just a gratuitous image of the International Space Station in TIE Fighter configuration. Source: Nasa

That's no moon... oh, wait. Yes it is. Nothing amateur related. Just a gratuitous image of the International Space Station in TIE Fighter configuration. Source: Nasa

Mixed reports appeared in the press last week that Hollywood is planning a reality TV show on the International Space Station. Deadline reported that reality TV producers Znakc&Jones will create a competition-based series called Sent Into Space that will give inventors a chance to send their projects to the space station. Casis, the group Nasa made responsible for managing the space station’s industrialization, is involved with the project, says the report. Nasa Watch editor Keith Cowing, however, received a different story from Casis. “Talks are still in the preliminary stages,” a Casis representative replied.

What does it mean for amateurs? There are those who will sniff at the space station being used for such trivial stuff, but Nasa desperately needs people to see space as a place where innovative things happen. Done right, Sent Into Space could be no different than one of the space agency’s Centennial Challenges. The only difference? People will actually know about it.

On a smaller scale, the parent-teacher organization at an Alabama middle school used astronomy to raise supplemental funds for its kids. The two presentations, one about the Google Lunar X-Prize and the other about Nasa’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer space telescope, will be held at the school’s planetarium. A recent renovation of the 40-year old planetarium brought into the digital age, allowing it to support science presentations beyond astronomy. The PTO events raise funds to support these educational programs. 

What does it mean for amateurs? Community observatories and planetaria show that there’s widespread interest in space and astronomy.  Montgomery County’s decades-long support for a school planetarium gives its students a chance to begin a life-long interest in science.

Exploring Deep Space

The American Astronomical Society awarded amateur astronomer Mike Simonsen the Chambliss Amateur Achievement Award. A relatively under-studied type of binary star system, Z Camelopardalis’ consist of a white dwarf star that pulls material away from a close-orbiting companion star. As the material reaches critical mass on the white dwarf’s surface it explodes in a runaway fusion reaction. Unlike more typical nova systems that outburst on a more-or-less predictable schedule, Z Camelopardalis will stop for days or years at a time. Simonsen is a prolific variable star observers whose research into Z Camelopardalis stars will “have a long-lasting impact on the field of accretion disk theory”.

The Royal Observatory opened registration for 2015 Astronomy Photographer of the Year. The youth competition accepts applications from amateur astronomers under the age of 16. Contestants around the world simply upload their images to Flicker and provide the Royal Observatory with links to up to 5 images. The Royal Observatory will award prizes in categories ranging from Aurorae to Stars & Nebulae. The overall winner will receive £2500. Special prizes will be offered for Best Newcomer and for using robotic observatories.

Research made possible by Galaxy Zoo’s crowdsourced data studied zombie galaxies, reported New Scientist. Unless a galaxy merges with another, the process of star formation slows until all that is left is a large population of old, red stars. The study (DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stu327) found two different processes through which galaxies evolve from young, blue, star-forming bodies into old, red, dying galaxies. The galaxy shape classifications that hundreds of thousands of volunteers gave Galaxy Zoo let the researchers map the two processes.

The Baltimore Sun reported on another research project made possible by Galaxy Zoo. Scientists at the University of Maryland are studying a galaxy with the mellifluous name J1649+2635. Its features combine traits of several different types of galaxies: well-formed spiral arms, jets of particles shooting from a black hole a the galaxy’s center, and a dense halo of stars. "I was a bit skeptical of the concept at first,” project scientist Sylvain Veilleux told the Baltimore Sun, “but the Galaxy Zoo has shown time and time again that it is a valuable resource for professional astronomers." It was Galaxy Zoo volunteers who first flagged J1649+2635 as a strange-looking galaxy. Their work, originally announced by the university last month, will appear in the Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Galaxy J1649+2635 in two spectra. The blue blobs are radio signals produced by jets pour out of the galactic core. The spiral yellow is visible light of the galaxy itself. Source: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Galaxy J1649+2635 in two spectra. The blue blobs are radio signals produced by jets pour out of the galactic core. The spiral yellow is visible light of the galaxy itself. Source: Mao et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF, Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Exploring the Solar System

A near-Earth asteroid will fly by our planet on January 26, Earth Sky and other outlets reported. About 500 meters in diameter, the asteroid will be visible through amateur telescopes as it passes some 1,200,000 kilometers from Earth.

Amateur astronomer Bruce Berger spoke with the Chelmsford Independent about his love of astronomy, his outreach efforts, and his asteroid research. Berger, a member of several astronomy societies, has had his asteroid observations used in research published in Nature.

Mars One Monday

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

Earlier this month Mars One selected the Seed Project for its 2018 robotic Mars mission. iLeon spoke with Miguel Ángel Crespo Valbuena, the only Spaniard on the Seed Project. Valbuena discusses the scientific value of the Seed Project’s research and its potential benefits for settling the red planet. He is a PhD candidate specializing in space gardening who has conducted research at Nasa’s Ames Research Center. Despite his academic and professional record, Valbuena has to use his unemployment benefits to pay for his studies. Deploring his country’s severe cuts in science funding, Valbuena says (via google translate) that Spain sees “science as an expense rather than an investment.” 

The Science for the People podcast spoke with Elmo Keep about her article critical of Mars One. Keep was more pointedly critical of Mars One's ambitions than in here article. At the same time, her opinion of Australian candidate Josh Richards were more complimentary. Keep believes Richards is one of the few candidates she met that's qualified to assess the risks. The podcast also included an interview with Space News senior editor Jeff Foust about the for-profit space sector.

The BBC interviewed Mars One chief medical officer Norbert Kraft. He reviews the third round selection process that will take the current 660 candidates down to a few dozen. Reporter Richard Hollingham concludes the article by saying, even if Mars One “comes to nothing”, its research will still be useful for the future of space exploration.

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

  • Echo Online spoke with German candidate Robert Schroeder about moving to Mars. Schroeder was part of the CyanoKnights team that hoped to send an experiment on Mars One’s 2018 robotic mission. Schroeder continues to conduct outreach presentations about Mars and is waiting for his interview for the next selection round.
  • French Canadian candidate Bryan Vézina told Le Journal de Montreal that “it’s when you get out of our comfort zone we begin to live.” (Via google translate)
  • Zareen Cheema was the only Indian student chosen by Students on Ice to explore Antarctica. She spent the past 2 weeks helping scientists conduct research on the icy continent. Previously Cheema has taken part in Nasa’s International Space Settlement Design contest and attended space camps in America and Europe. Her Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised over $6000 to pay for her trip. At 19 years, the mechanical engineering student is among the youngest Mars One candidates. (See coverage in the Hindustan Times and the Times of India)

Exploring the Planet Earth

One day's snapshot of rain and snow reports form Cocorahs' 19,000 members. Source: Cocorahs

One day's snapshot of rain and snow reports form Cocorahs' 19,000 members. Source: Cocorahs

The National Science Foundation featured a citizen science weather program. More than 19,000 people took part in Cocorahs, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (no, the acronym doesn’t match the words) last year. They reported more than 11,000 daily rainfall and snowfall measurements to Cocorahs. The density of Cocorahs observers gives meteorologists a higher-resolution picture of precipitation than the sparsely-distributed networks of professional weather stations can provide. “What volunteers are finding is fascinating--and it helps all of us better understand what we've experienced in our lives with rain, hail, and snow,” Ellen McCallie with the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program told the NSF. Cocorahs has networks across the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

Noaa’s SkyWarn citizen science program recruits volunteers to take spot severe storms. The Marlin Democrat reported on a training session in North Texas that taught volunteers of all ages how to safely monitor and report storms. The ground truth they provide helps meteorologists know what’s happening in the gaps between the weather service’s radar stations. The Daily Light reports on an upcoming training session for residents of north Texas. Noaa will conduct 60 training sessions in north Texas alone in preparation for the spring thunderstorm season. Tom Bradshaw, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth Office told the Daily Light that “Weather radar can only tell us so much. The trained spotters in the field give important information for the warning process to work effectively.”

Kelp forests beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. These enhanced Landsat images use near-infrared light to see just beneath the surface. Source: USGS via Nasa/EarthObservatory

Kelp forests beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. These enhanced Landsat images use near-infrared light to see just beneath the surface. Source: USGS via Nasa/EarthObservatory

3,400 volunteers searched for kelp forests in satellite images, reported Nasa's Earth Observatory. One of the Zooniverse crowdsourced citizen science projects, Floating Forests presents volunteers with Landsat images and asks them to mark anything that might be a kelp forest near the ocean surface. With over 320,00 images to review, the project’s scientists could never hope to do the work themselves. Project scientist Peter Cavanaugh said that although the project has focused on the coast of California and Australia’s Tasman Sea, ““Our ultimate goal is to cover all the coastlines of the world that support giant kelp forests.”

anadian insurance magazine, Canadian Underwriter, wrote about the benefits of crowdsourced earthquake reports. Within minutes of an earthquake Natural Resources Canada collects Did You Feel It reports at its website. University of Western Toronto seismologist cited a 2010 earthquake that generated over 59,000 reports. That gives seismologists a more detailed picture of what’s happening between widely-separated seismic monitoring station. The article goes on to provide a good high level explanation of the factors in an earthquake that can lead to damage and fatalities.

More than 380 people reported a rare magnitude 3.3 earthquake in southern New England. The USGS received the reports at its Did You Feel It online reporting site, allowing its scientists to create maps of earthquake intensity within minutes of the quake. Boston College scientist John E. Ebel told the Providence Journal that “we seismologists are just as surprised as anyone else.”

The unfortunately acronymed Institute for Science and International Security released a report (PDF) based on satellite imagery that shows Pakistan’s 4th nuclear reactor up-and-running. Isis has used satellite imagery for the past four years to document the nuclear site’s construction. Pakistan dedicates the Kushab nuclear complex to plutonium production for its nuclear weapons program.

Amateurs in Microgravity

The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off early in the Florida morning with the Dragon resupply module. In addition to food and professional research, it also carried experiments built by middle and high school students. Source: Nasa

The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off early in the Florida morning with the Dragon resupply module. In addition to food and professional research, it also carried experiments built by middle and high school students. Source: Nasa

New Jersey science teacher Dan Weaver spoke with Shore News Today about seeing his students’ research finally arrive at the International Space Station. A little more than 2 months ago, he and his students watched their work disappear in a ball of fire as Orbital Science’s Antares rocket exploded above the launch pad. Thanks to quick work by Nasa, Nanoracks, and the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, replacement experiments from 18 middle and high schools across America and Canada rode the SpaceX Falcon 9 into space. MLive, a Michigan media group, featured students from Kalamazoo-area Catholic schools whose research also made it into space.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program will fly its 7th mission to the International Space Station later this year. Schools across the country are using a peer-review process to select student research projects. A group of 9th grade students in Iowa featured in this report from KTIV. They will send a peanut allergy test kit to the space station to see how it performs in microgravity.

The similarities between the Spheres robots and Luke Skywalker's practice drones must be purely coincidental. Once a year MIT, Nasa, and Esa let middle and high school students fly the robots around the International Space Station. Source: Nasa via Esa

The similarities between the Spheres robots and Luke Skywalker's practice drones must be purely coincidental. Once a year MIT, Nasa, and Esa let middle and high school students fly the robots around the International Space Station. Source: Nasa via Esa

MIT conducted the annual Zero Robotics Competition last week. High school teams from across the United States and European Space Agency member nations joined together to program robots on the International Space Station. The Spheres robots use jets of air to navigate through the space station. The challenge for the student teams was to navigate a virtual obstacle course and take “pictures” of virtual asteroids. Students in the US met on the MIT campus while their European counterparts gathered at an Esa facility in the Netherlands. The winning LakeElevenVadars team consisted of students from the United States and Italy. Local coverage from South Carolina’s WCHS and Italy’s Corriere dell Universita highlighted the talents of the space champions.

Making Spaceships

The Connacht Tribune highlighted local Galway schools taking part in the European Cansat Competition. Organized by the European Space Agency, the contest challenges students to build “satellites” that fit within a soda can. A suborbital rocket then launches the CanSat on a mission to collect data during the descent. Irish technology companies sponsor the local qualifying rounds to encourage science education in Ireland.

Southgate Amateur Radio News reported that a picoballoon released from Australia crashed near the African island of Madagascar. The small balloon - the size of a party balloon - carried a solar powered radio transmitter than amateur radio operators could track as winds carried it around the world. It’s three weeks in the air brought the balloon across the Pacific, South America, the Atlantic, and South Africa before bad weather brought the flight to an end. "The level of interest from all around the world has been amazing” the balloon’s maker Andy Nguyen told ARN.