Amateur Space Weekly - October 10

Every week I recap headlines from the world of amateur space exploration. From students sending research to the International Space Station to retirees searching for planets orbiting other stars, space exploration belongs to more than just the astronauts.

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Nasa wants the public to be part of humanity’s greatest adventure. They can use Nasa technology to create new businesses or propose new ways to advance human spaceflight. Hands-on programs for students encourage students to pursue studies in science and math while developing 21st Century skills. Here are some ways makers can be part of the space program:

A single stage rocket rises from an Alabama field in last year's Student Launch contest. The program gives secondary school and college students hands-on experience in a space development project. Credit: Nasa/MSFC/Emmett Given

Nasa’s Student Launch program challenges students to build a high performance rocket that carries a scientific payload one mile into the sky. Earlier this week Nasa announced the 55 student teams picked for the 2016 rocketry contest. The competition’s field includes 39 teams from 4-year universities, 2 community college teams, and 14 middle school and high school teams. A Pennsylvania high school will field two teams, according to the York Dispatch. Students from a California 2-year community college formed an independent team with help from a local makerspace, the Fresno Bee reports.

The space agency created the Textile Test Methods Challenge to get fresh ideas for developing next-generation spacesuits. When astronauts go to asteroids or Mars, their spacesuits must withstand abrasion and erosion from the local regolith - sharp dust grains. The Apollo-era spacesuits barely survived harsh conditions on the Moon. Future missions will last much longer and so must the spacesuits. Small businesses, universities, and individuals can submit proposals for ways to test spacesuit materials resistance to dust abrasion in the Textile Test Methods Challenge.

Transporting stuff from Earth to Mars will be expensive - and landing the stuff on Mars is a technical challenge Nasa hasn’t licked yet. One way to get around these obstacles is to make structures and other elements of a Mars base from stuff that’s already on Mars. Nasa issued the In-Situ Materials Challenge to get proposals for kinds of modular structural elements that could be used to build a Mars base: launch pads, radiation shielding, pressure vessels, and more. 

Nasa opened up its patent database to support inventors, makers, and small businesses. The space agency is waiving its initial fees for three years. If the patent results in a shipping product, then Nasa will collect the standard patent royalties on behalf of the origianl inventor. The Startup Nasa program has an easy search tool to help inventors find the patents they need - from a deep space positioning system to an ultrasonic dental imager to next-generation flywheels.

The space agency’s High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware (Hunch) program helps develop 21st century manufacturing skills among America’s youth. Students use their schools’ machine shops to make supplies for the International Space Station. Your Houston News wrote about a Houston-area high school whose advanced fashion design students make Cargo Transport Bags and Crew Quarter Organizers. Two high schools just joined the program. A Montana high school and a Michigan high school each began a 3-year project to build a space station storage locker, reports KULR8 News and News24 respectively.

Space Makers

Boy Scouts of America teaches principles of physics and mathematics through its Blast into Scouting program. A Texas launch event sent rockets 200 feet in the air, reports KDHNews. More than 350 Cub Scouts launched their model rockets into the blustery skies above Illinois, reports the Daily Herald. Michigan rocketeers once had to break park rules when they launched rockets from local baseball fields. An aspiring Eagle Scout made rocketry safer by building a public launchpad, the Livingston Daily reports. Now rocketeers can gather at a local model airplane club’s airfield where insurance and supervision can make the hobby even safer.

A Wisconsin middle school uses model rockets to teach 8th grade physics, Wisconsin News reports. The students built model rockets with different numbers of control fins. They recorded the height of each rocket launch and will use the data to understand how fins effect rocket flight. A Donorschoose crowdfunding campaign paid for the model rockets and other supplies.

The student-built satellite AAUSat-5 drifts past the International Space Station's solar panels. The satellite will test technology to make maritime travel safer and more efficient. Credit: Nasa

The European Space Agency released two CubeSats from the International Space Station that include amateur radio transmitters. Ham radio operators can track the satellites and record telemetry broadcast from orbit. Students at Denmark’s Aalborg University built AAUSat-5 to show how satellites can track ships at sea using the Automatic Identification System.

The top-secret launch of an American spy satellite had not-so-secret amateur satellites tagging along for the ride into orbit. Nasa and the Naval Reconnaissance Office used the extra space on an Atlas V launcher to send 13 CubeSats into space. The American amateur satellite group Amsat-NA built Fox-1 to provide two-way communications for ham radio operators and to carry undergraduate experiments: Penn Statue University undergraduates built a gyroscope from sensors similar to those used in smartphones while Vanderbilt University students are studying cosmic ray impacts on computer memory chips. BisonSat is the first satellite launched by a Native American tribal college (here’s their Facebook page). The remote sensing satellite uses a unique stabilization system that taps into Earth’s magnetic field.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps schools across America and around the world send student research projects to the International Space Station. The Open Window School in Bellevue, Washington, is one of 22 communities that will take part in the SSEP’s 9th mission early next year. The Bellevue Reporter attended a school assembly where the Open Window Schools kindergarten through 8th grade students learned they will do science in space. The SSEP also announced its 10th mission to the space station. Communities and school districts can apply to send student research into space on a Fall 2016 launch.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University opened the first public suborbital spaceflight simulator at its campus in Daytona Beach, Florida, The Avion reports. The university’s faculty and students will use the simulator for research and education in the Commercial Space Operations degree program. Suborbital research company Project Possum will use the system to train its suborbital researchers and as part of its education outreach programs. ERAU’s alumni newsletter reported on the current and former students taking part in the program. The Daytona Beach News-Journal followed the inaugural class of astronaut-trainees as they tested spacesuits and rode in the simulator. The potential astronauts must still wait, however, for XCor to finish developing its suborbital rocketplane. The Odessa American reported that XCor has nearly completed its Midland, Texas, manufacturing facility.

Arizona-based WorldView should be ready to carry tourists and scientists into the stratosphere in late 2017, according to a Spacedotcom report. The six hour balloon flight into Near Space won’t reach boundary of outer space like the rocketplanes, but will be a lot gentler - and a lot “cheaper”. The 2015 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book offers WorldView balloon rides for only $90,000 per person, reported Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star.

Exploring Earth

Amateur weather spotters in the Cocorahs network help the National Weather Service predict floods in the wake of hurricane Joaquin, the Coastal Observer reported. Weather agencies rely on networks of volunteer observers to round out data from satellites, radars, and weather stations. The professionals’ sophisticated sensors are so widely separated that a lot of weather can happen undetected. The volunteers provide lower quality but higher resolution data that make a difference in forecasting. America’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration recently honored one of their volunteer weather spotters for 20 years of service, the Press Mentor reports. Rein Schmidt has provided an uninterrupted stream of rainfall, temperature, and other readings from his Illinois home since 1995.

Citizen Science project Cyclone Center released its September stats. 533 volunteers made 8027 classifications of tropical cyclones (hurricanes). The project aims to create a catalog of intensity estimates for every tropical cyclone captured in four decades of satellite observations. The current catalogs are not consistent - different weather agencies use different techniques based on different assumptions. Although one of the smaller citizen science projects, Cyclone Center will create a useful resource for meteorologists and climate scientists.

Exploring the Solar System and Deep Space

A heat map of the 30 public reports of last week's fireball over Europe. Credit: American Meteor Society

30 people in Holland and surrounding countries reported seeing a fireball last Saturday. Groups like the American Meteor Society and International Meteor Organization collect public reports to study meteors and potentially recover meteorite fragments that survive the fiery entry into Earth's atmosphere.

David Levy donated his observing log to the Linda Hall Library’s astronomy collection, Spacedotcom reported. Levy is one of the world’s most prolific amateur comet-hunters and the co-discoverer of Jupiter-smashing comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. He chose to donate to the science and engineering library after using its astronomy collection to study 19th Century astronomer John Herschel’s observing logs.

Amateur astronomer Bob King explained in Sky & Telescope how to observe a nova, the expanding shell of gas exploding from a white dwarf star.

The Planet Four blog explains a Martian feature called Inca City. Planet Four is a crowdsourced citizen science project that maps seasonal features on Mars. Inca City is one of the regions the participants study. Nicknamed after rectangular features reminiscent of a buried ruin, Inca City is associated with an ancient impact site.

Other News in Amateur Space Exploration

Crowdsourced science service Zooniverse launched a monthly news site called Citizen Science Today. It aggregates “good writing and clear-sighted scholarship” on citizen science. Among the featured items are papers about the effect of community interaction, enhancing the quality of and trust in data, and combining human and machine intelligence. Brown University professor Carolyn Graybeal wrote an article about the role of volunteer weather spotters during extreme events like Hurricane Joaquin.

Make Magazine’s article “11 ways to build your own space program” isn’t quite what it says on the label. You can take part in some of the projects. Others allowed public participation, even if it was just financial, but have ended. Others are limited to student groups and one is a work being done by a Nasa contractor.