Amateur Space Weekly - October 16

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.

Jump to:

Featured News

You could find the full range of amateur participation in professional science in the week’s headlines. 

Clickers - More than 25,000 citizen scientists have contributed to the Sunspotters crowdsourcing project. Their 4 million (and counting) rankings of sunspot complexity will help scientists understand how solar storms form and ultimately create better space weather forecasts.

Observers - Amateur astronomers can help the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission study asteroids. The Gaia’s primary mission is to map the Milky Way’s stars, but asteroids regularly photobomb the pictures the space telescope takes. A team of scientists based in Poland created the Gaia-Gosa program to coordinate amateur observations of those same asteroids. Amateur data complements the professional data in ways that will make detailed analysis much easier.

Spotters - Professionals in the Earth sciences rely on the public to fill in the gaps between their widely separated sensors. The US Geological Survey crowdsources earthquake reports from the general public. Last weekend, for example, 1082 people reported the M4.4 earthquake in Oklahoma. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has several programs that crowdsource weather observations to fill in the blank areas beneath its radar coverage. The Idyllwild Town Crier covered a workshop for volunteer weather-spotters in Southern California. With a little training, anyone can become a storm spotter and report local weather conditions. You need a little more training to become part of the Skywarn network of severe weather reporters.

Space Makers

Sending weather balloons into the stratosphere is a relatively inexpensive way to give students hands-on experience with science and engineering. A Pennsylvania physics teacher helped his students send a balloon 97,000 feet in the air, the Reading Eagle reported. Thanks to support from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a British school used high altitude ballooning to enhance its science and math programs, the Lynne News reported.

Undergraduate engineering programs use near space ballooning to give their students hands-on experience in project management - something hard to replicate in the classroom. Students at the University of Maryland celebrated their 50th flight last weekend as their weather balloon rose 94,000 feet into the stratosphere. "The balloon payload program really allows young engineers to apply their theoretical knowledge to a real-world application,” senior William Gilbert said in the press release. The flight carried six experiments in atmospheric science, materials science, and flight systems.

A new Kickstarter project promises make near space balloon programs less expensive. While the electronic components only need to be purchased once, each flight requires a fresh supply of helium and a new balloon. That can cost several hundred dollars a flight. The Tracksoar APRS consolidates several electronic systems into a single, low-power board. Eliminating the need for separate GPS, ham radio, telemetry, atmospheric sensing systems makes the balloon payload lighter which would let projects use cheaper balloons and less helium. The Kickstarter project launched eight days ago and has already raised $5,000 of its $22,000 goal.

Exploring Earth

Antarctic tour operators, meeting in Canada, discussed ways they and their customers can contribute to citizen science projects. Maritime Executive reported that the highly trained guides who accompany the tourists can coordinate volunteer science at a higher level than most programs. Happy Whales, for example, collects photographs of humpback whales from Antarctic tourists. Marine scientists can identify individuals by the patterns of each whale’s fluke (the whale's tale). The amateur photographs will let the scientists track recovery of whale populations.

Exploring Space

Nichelle Nichols played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek and got one step closer to space when she flew on Nasa's Sofia flying observatory with a team of science educators. Credit: Nasa/Carla Thomas

Spacedotom covered Nichelle Nichols’ flight on Nasa’s Sofia airborne observatory. The Star Trek actress joined several science educators as they watched infrared astronomy in action. The Sofia Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program lets two dozen educators experience science at 45,000 feet. The teachers must complete a graduate level astronomy course and participate in a professional research project. They then integrate their experience into their science classes and conduct outreach with other teachers.

The Sun may be heading towards a minimum in its eleven year solar cycle, but this year has been good for aurora-spotters. AuroraWatch UK issued more alerts in 2015 than in the previous two years combined, the BBC reported. Scientists at Lancaster University operate AuroraWatch UK as a public service to let Britons know when they have a chance of seeing the northern lights.

The Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is using astronomy to boost science education, Albawaba Business reports. A government R&D institute is conducting a series of workshops with middle and high school educators over the course of the school year to give teachers the knowledge and skills they will need. One measure of the program’s success will be Qatar’s entry in the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics.