Amateur Space Weekly - October 25

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.

TL;DR? Jump to:

  • Featured - President Obama honors teen space explorers and launches CubeSat contest
  • Space Makers - Elementary schools and cops explore near space, controlling satellites with a smartwatch, a Nasa rover design contest, and crowdfunding the last piece of Apollo
  • Exploring Space - Growing potatoes on Mars, amateur exoplanet discoveries, a community observatory, and more

Dr. Heidi Newberg and her minions coordinate 25,000 volunteers around the world who help make the Milkyway@Home project a globally distributed supercomputer. With the loss of NSF funding, the volunteer community has helped support financially the search for dark matter.  Source: Newberg Research Group

I wrote about Milkyway@Home in "Funding the search for dark matter with citizen science". The project hopes to map dark matter orbiting our galaxy. A network of volunteers contribute their personal computers' unused processing power to create a globally distributed supercomputer. After losing her research grants last year, principle investigator Dr. Heidi Newberg turned to her volunteer community for help and raised $50,000 to keep the project on life support. This year she hopes to raise $100,000 (including a $33,000 personal donation) to restore the project’s scientific output. Check out my interview with Dr. Newberg, one of her graduate students, and one of the project’s volunteers.

President Barack Obama at the White House Astronomy Night. While he may not have seen much with the floodlights shining into the telescope, the President honored many budding scientists and engineers. Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama honored several teenage space explorers and kicked off a unique contest at the White House Astronomy Night:

Space Makers

Three Michigan elementary schools took part in a near space balloon flight. The students will use data and images from the balloon's flight in their science classes. The balloon also carried a coffee cup from the project's sponsor Cops&Doughnuts. The cafe isn't named after its best customers - it's named after its owners. When the original owners had to close the town's only cafe, the entire police department chipped in to buy it. (OK, that isn't space-related but cops owning a doughnut shop? Classic!)

Smartwatches may have a use after all, the Baltimore Sun reports. Students at Maryland’s Capitol Technology University developed a system that lets spacecraft components communicate using Internet standards. The Baltimore Sun reported on the students’ progress as they tested their system on a Nasa suborbital rocket launch. As the rocket headed into space, the students sent a command from an Android Wear smartwatch to a heavily modified Android smartphone inside the rocket. A more detailed report on the team’s evolution appears on the CTU website.

Nasa and Worcester Polytechnic Institute opened registration for the Sample Return Robot Challenge. The space agency wants to make smarter rovers will let missions to Mars and other worlds get more science done. While Nasa has its traditional space centers and contractors working on the program, the Sample Return Robot Challenge enlists help from amateurs who can bring a different perspective. Universities, high schools, small businesses or robotics enthusiasts from anywhere in the world can form teams to compete in the contest. American teams can compete for part of a $1.5 million prize purse.

Inifinity Science Center launched a Kickstarter campaign to preserve one of the last remnants of the Saturn V program. The Apollo 19 mission was cancelled before Apollo 11 reached the Moon, but much of the hardware had already been built. The Saturn V S-1C first stage was left sitting in a back lot at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It is the only major Saturn V component not on permanent display. The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $500,000 to move the first stage to the Stennis Space Center for restoration and display. Unfortunately, the campaign has only raised $10,000 in its first ten days - a bad sign for crowdfunding campaigns. (h/t CollectSpace)

Exploring Space

Want to grow potatoes on Mars? A workshop taught at Washington State University and the University of Idaho helps undergraduates understand the complexity and uncertainty of Martian agriculture. Published as a case study at the University of Buffalo, the class helps teach problem solving, sustainability, and working with constraints.

Citizen science made two recent exoplanet discoveries possible. A hot-Jupiter was already known to orbit the star Wasp 47. Now a super-Neptune and super-Earth have been found orbiting Wasp 47 thanks to participants in Planet Hunters, the University of Michigan announced. The amateur planeteers spotted the tell-tale signs of the exoplanets’ transits in data from the Kepler Space Telescope. A recently published paper (arXiv preprint: 1508.02411) explains that standard migration theory says that a hot Jupiter should destroy other planets when it shifts orbit. The existence of these planets orbiting Wasp 47 show that migration theory does not fully explain planetary formation. 

A different discovery set the media a-twitter with news of “alien civilizations” discovered by citizen scientists. The reality is less sensational. Scientists with Planet Hunters tried to set the record straight - there are no aliens. The most logical explanation is a cloud of comets. Scientific American wrote one of the few pieces that focused on citizen scientists’ role in the discovery. Unfortunately, the last half of the article focuses on the potential for alien Dyson spheres.

In the Necessity-is-the-mother-of-Invention category, amateur astronomers in Las Vegas partnered with the local Boy Scouts organization to create a community observatory. The Las Vegas Astronomical received a donated telescope worth $40,000, the Las Vegas Sun reported, but they did not have a permanent place to store it. They struck a deal to use land at the Boy Scouts’ campground to build an observatory. In exchange the amateurs conduct astronomy workshops and stargazing sessions with the Scouts.

Other news in amateur space exploration:

The National Science Foundation’s director's PhD research depended on data collected by members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

Students at the University of Victoria took it upon themselves to enhance astronomy education, The Martlet reports.

The United Arab Emirates’ mission to Mars has kicked off a teacher ambassador program.

The Guardian’s “How do I see the northern lights” provides tips for Britons, but the advice is useful for anyone far enough north (or south) to see aurorae.

 Teen rocketeer Emily Schmidtlein's passion for science and technology drives her to lead robotics teams and conduct outreach at local elementary schools. (WDAF)