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: Moonspike is the latest space crowdfunding failure
- Space Makers: Near Space ballooning for undergrads and tourists, low-cost satellite making
- Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing Hurricane Patricia damage assessments
- Exploring Outer Space: Public observatories, planetary citizen science, and a woman's founding role in astronomy
Project Moonspike looks like the latest fatality in space crowdfunding. The project’s organizers hoped to build a rocket that will crash a “symbolic payload” on the Moon. Moonspike’s founders launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $909,351 in startup capital. Backers have only pledged $118,392 with one day left. “Anyone who takes a close look at our project, feasibility study, and team history will know we are not [a scam],” Moonspike co-founder Kristian von Bengtson told Inverse, “but I think it’s a difficult time between space projects and the public.”
Moonspike had a decent pedigree compared to many Kickstarter campaigns. Kristian von Bengston was a key player in the all-volunteer, crowdfunded Copenhagen Suborbitals' effort to launch people on suborbital flights. After a brief flirtation with Mars One, von Bengston teamed up with serial entrepreneur Chris Lamour to create the Moonspike project.
But there's more to crowdfunding success than a resume and a cool idea. Shooting for the Moon on the fundraising goal can set a project on a course for failure. Out of all Kickstarter projects launched in 2014, less than one half of one tenth of one percent raised a million dollars or more. Success stories like Planetary Resources and Lunar Mission One are news because they are rare. Much more common are projects that miss their goals and are never heard from again.
Nasa opened registration for its High Altitude Student Payloads program. Undergraduates at US schools can design experiments to ride into the stratosphere on a high altitude balloon. According to the Nasa press release the program has involved “more than 800 students from across the United States” over the past decade. The student teams have sent engineering experiments that test new space technologies and science experiments that study the upper atmosphere.
The Rochester Institute of Technology showed that you don’t need to be a space agency to explore Near Space. The RIT Space Exploration Research Group flew its first Near Space balloon 99,000 feet above New England. The balloon flew farther than the team expected and landed three states over in Maine.
Near Space tourism company WorldView complete its final scale flight test. A model of its passenger-carrying capsule rose over 30 kilometers above Arizona before successfully parachuting to the surface. The flight test validated World View’s ability to give passengers a smooth liftoff and descent. The company’s Chief Technology Officer Taber MacCallum said in the press release, “While each individual system has been analyzed and extensively tested in previous test flights, this significant milestone allowed us to test and prove all critical flight systems at once.” The test flight keeps WorldView on its 2017 target to fly passengers… who can afford the $75,000 ticket.
Farmland in northeastern Florida serves as a model rocket launch range, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported. Rocketeers of all ages gather every month to launch rockets of all sizes. The launch site even attracts Nasa employees from the Kennedy Space Center who gain experience in high performance rocketry.
The University of Southampton’s Small Satellite group plans to orbit a CubeSat by 2016, the Wessex Scene reports (h/t Southgate Amateur Radio News). It will collect data about the atmosphere’s effect on orbital decay to support the university’s research in space debris. Undergraduates working on the project will experience a space project from concept to completion. This is the original vision for CubeSats - giving students a chance to experience the entire project lifecycle rather than a brief glimpse of a decades-long traditional project. If all goes to plan, the CubeSat will ride on the European Space Agency’s Vega launcher next year.
A startup hopes to revolutionize the nanosatellite market now dominated by CubeSats, Discovery News reports. CubeSats have been so successful that they have not fulfilled their original purpose. The California professors who developed the CubeSat standard figured the satellites could replace launch vehicles’ ballast so student projects could ride into space for free. But there is so much demand from commercial and government CubeSat customers that launches can cost over $100,000. Thumbsat plans to turn that upside down through technology and vertical integration. Its satellite-on-a-chip takes advantage of the latest advances in technology to make affordable hardware. Thumbsat will also centralize all of the paperwork and bureaucracy in-house so customers won’t need to deal with the complexity of sending satellites into orbit. They hope to bring the cost of launching a space experiment down to $20,000. Potential customers may want to wait-and-see, however. Thumbsat has built its business model around launch vehicles from Firefly Space Systems - a startup that has not reached orbit.
The revolution in remote sending technology lets people use space images to help humanitarian causes. Tomnod uses images from parent company WorldView’s satellites in its crowdsourcing campaigns. Fox News recently reported on Tomnod’s anti-slavery campaign. With the first nine days 9,000 people reviewed satellite images of Ghana to identify fishing boats on Lake Volta. This will give the Global Fund to End Slavery a baseline from which to assess the scope of child slavery.
The University of Toledo will lead a new Earth Science education program for Nasa. The space agency’s Science Mission Directorate recently announced a dozen awards that will change the way it conducts education outreach. The University of Toledo will coordinate K-12 programs that let students use data from Nasa’s Earth Observation System as well as crowdsourced surface data from the Globe program. “Science is much more fun when you do science,” UT professor Kevin Czajkowski said in the press release. “We need to get more students outside taking real observations in the world around them so they can use the data that they collected themselves to answer questions and solve problems.”
Exploring Outer Space
The Southern Illinois University Evansville, home to space crowdsourcing service Cosmoquest, is another recipient of Nasa’s education grants. In interviews with AlestleLive, the university leadership praise astrophysicist Pamela Gay for turning SIUE into a center forspace education and citizen science. “This is really exciting because it’s a great testament to not only Dr. Gay’s work,” associate provost for research Jerry Weinberg told AlestleLive, “but also recognition that SIUE has the capabilities of performing the work that’s in the proposal.”
Citizen science project Solar Stormwatch will soon publish their catalog of coronal mass ejections. Computer algorithms were so ineffective at mapping the faint clouds of plasma emerging from the Sun that scientists turned to crowdsourcing. The project’s Trace-It activity averaged dozens of classifications for each CME to map the outburst’s leading edge as it streams away from the Sun. The scientists will present their results at the European Space Weather Week conference in November. (The Sunspotter team will also present at the conference)
Theater-goers in Houston can see Silent Sky, the drama about America’s earliest female astronomers, the Houston Press reports. Written by playwright Lauren Gunderson, Silent Sky follows the career of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her fellow “computers” at the Harvard Observatory. They laid the groundwork for 20th Century astronomy by creating catalogs of stellar positions and brightness. Leavitt discovered that the luminosity of Cepheid-type stars varies with their distance from Earth. That relationship makes Cepheids key mile markers when measuring distances in the local Universe and led to the discovery of the Universe’s expansion.
The night sky once dominated our lives, but few people can see more than a few stars in skies blanketed by light pollution. Public observatories keep us connected to the night sky and help inspire students to study science and math. The first public observatory in the United Kingdom celebrated its 80th anniversary, the Evening Telegraph reports. The Mills Observatory holds open stargazing session during the Fall and Winter for Dundee’s residents and visitors. It also hosts the Dundee Astronomical Society’s monthly meetings. The observatory has a historic 250mm refractor built in 1871 that only gets used at special events, but the public can use the observatory’s other telescopes including a 400mm dobsonian.
Other news in amateur space exploration:
- Local amateur astronomers helped a Massachusetts high school opened its own observatory, reports the Barnstable Patriot.
- Inverse profiled Japanese astronomer Tsutomu Seki who discovered a comet in 1965 that developed a 70 million mile long tail.
- DigitalGlobe opened its image archive to support disaster recover from Hurricane Patricia.