Amateur Space Weekly - November 14

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 News: $1,000,000 prize awarded for using satellites to track tomb raiders (the bad kind)
  • Space Makers: High school and undergraduate rocketry season ramps up
  • Amateurs in Zero-G: Waiting for launch Canadian teens and undergrads prep shrooms for space
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing climate and weather observations,
  • Exploring Outer Space: Astronomy programs for Australian high schools and Californian undergrads, fireballs in the night sky, high-flying science teachers, and insider accounts of citizen science
  • Other Amateur Space News: Public observatories and astronomy tourism

Featured News

Space archaeology dates back to the 1992 discovery of the lost city of Ubar on the Arabian Peninsula. This pair of radar and optical images taken on the Space Shuttle three years later helped researchers at the dig site. The fleets of commercial remote sensing satellites now orbiting Earth opens new opportunities for archaeologists like Susan Parcak. Credit: Nasa

Susan Parcak received the $1,000,000 TED Prize for her use of satellites to track the looting of ancient sites in the Middle East. Parcak is an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who helped pioneer the use of satellite imaging to discover ancient ruins. Her recent work uses the same tools to combat the extremist groups that finance their operations by selling artifacts on the black market. Parcak will unveil her plans for the prize money at a February 2016 TED Talk. Parcak said in the press release “We can use this TED Prize to get the world involved.” 

Could that mean opportunities for citizen scientists? The National Geographic-sponsored Valley of the Khans project let the public help find Mongol-era sites by mapping features in satellite images. The researchers behind the project went on to found crowdsourcing service Tomnod which lets the public assist disaster recovery and search-and-rescue operations by mapping images from space. If Dr. Parcak takes a similar approach, the public could soon be scanning satellite images to fight the looting of our archaeological heritage.

Space Makers

As the 2016 Team America Rocketry Challenge heats up, last year’s champs continue to make the news. The team’s advisor, English teacher Mark Keeton, earned the National Space Club - Huntsville’s Educator of the Year Award, reported the Franklin County Times. Besides helping the student rocketeers with the science and skills of model rocketry, Keeton helps develop the kids’ engineering communications skills.

In other Team America Rocketry Challenge news, an Alabama high school is launching their first rocketry team (Franklin County Times) and United Launch Alliance donated money to South Texas engineering clubs to help fund their competitive rocket teams (Valley Morning Star).

Undergraduates at the University of Maine prepare their high performance rocket to compete in Nasa’s rocketry contest. The year-long Student Launch program mimics Nasa’s own development process. The students must pass the Preliminary Design Review before they proceed to the next stage.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program can’t send teens’ experiments into space until Orbital/ATK and SpaceX get their rockets working. But that hasn’t kept students from developing their zero-g research projects. Ryerson University undergraduates and local high school students are ready to send their mushroom growth experiment to the International Space Station, the Eyeopener reports.

Exploring Earth

As carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere continue to rise, scientists increasingly turn to the public to help measure climate change’s effects. Alaska Public Radio reported on one program that asks native Alaskans to document climate change. The 120 members of the Local Environmental Observer Network report animal die-offs, flooding, invasive plants, and other unusual environmental events. Now the eight-nation Arctic Council wants to extend the program around the Arctic Circle.

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography announced that they want the Southern Californian public to submit pictures of coastal erosion to help document El Niño’s impact. As winter storms grow stronger and more frequent, the pictures will help scientists monitor what many believe will be the strongest El Niño event in several years. The citizen science project will also help forecasters predict the longer-term effects of global climate change. 

The United States’ National Weather Service relies on public weather observations every day, but none are as important as the nearly 300,000 Skywarn volunteers. These storm spotters report severe weather as it happens, giving meteorologists valuable insight to what is happening below weather radars and tens of kilometers away from weather stations. The St. Charles Herald Guide reported from a Louisiana training class where emergency coordinator Eric Zammit described how volunteer reports give the pros more confidence in their forecasts. NWS meteorologist Kate Guillet told the St. Augustine Record that eyewitness accounts of tornado weather are essential in Florida. The Daily Independent attended a Skywarn training session where California volunteers learned how to submit pictures of hail stones to give meteorologists a clear picture of what is happening. 

Personal weather stations are fully digital which lets you track weather conditions over time. You can also donate your data to various weather networks. The tens of thousands of weather stations give meteorologists high-resolution snapshots of temperature, windspeed, and other weather data that they cannot get from their widely-separated weather stations. Britain’s MetOffice collects public data through its Weather Observation Website. To encourage science and mathematics education - and get more data - the MetOffice will give ten British schools a free weather station so they can take and contribute real-time weather data, ITV reports.

Exploring Outer Space

The School of Astronomy & Astrophysics is an online program for Australian high school students. Education HQ Australia reports that the program received a $500,000 grant to expand its reach beyond the current 300 students-per-year. The new syllabus will include courses in data science and scientific computing.

The Daily Aztec wrote about San Diego State University’s undergraduate program in astronomy. Considering it is the only astronomy program for undergraduates in the University of California system, enrollment is relatively small. That lets the students work closely with professors and get hands-on experience with observatory facilities.

This year’s intense Taurid meteor shower sent many fireballs streaking across the night sky, the American Meteor Society reported. One third of the year’s fireball events occured in the past two weeks. A Hallloween fireball over central Europe and an All Saints Day fireball over eastern Canada and New England generated the most reports. Astronomy Ireland called on the Irish public to report sightings of last weekend’s fireball, the Clare Herald. With enough reports its members hope to triangulate the site of any meteorite falls.

The next solar eclipse over North America isn’t for another two years, but preparations are already under way. An astronomy professor advised the town council that, as one of the largest cities to experience totality, Missouri's academic center Columbia should receive more than 400,000 solar eclipse tourists. According to the Columbia Tribune report, professor Angela Speck warned the council that public safety planning needs to start now.

Flagstaff Business News spoke with the Arizona educators who flew on Nasa’s Sofia airborne observatory. Every year Nasa invites a dozen educators to join the Sofia Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. The teachers take a graduate-level astronomy class and observe the scientists and crew at work as Sofia flies at a 40,000+ foot altitude - far above the atmospheric interference that makes infrared astronomy so difficult on the surface. In the article Samantha Thompson and Rich Krueger explain to the Flagstaff Business News how they will bring their experience into the classroom and to the local community.

Several Zooniverse citizen science projects posted insider accounts of their work. Galaxy Zoo’s Kyle Willet explains how the public helps spot tidal debris from ancient galactic mergers. Two galaxies merge to form an elliptical galaxy. Studying the left over debris can help astronomers understand how mergers take place. Disk Detective’s Steven Silverberg shares his experience in Chile where he conducted follow-up observations of possible debris disks identified by the project’s volunteers. (warning: the link is photo-heavy) The Planet Hunters team wrote about the Wasp-47 system and the unexpected discovery of planetary companions to an already-discovered hot Jupiter.

Other Amateur Space News

Public observatories have a long history of connecting the general public to the Universe even as light pollution makes stars more difficult to see. Civic groups in the English town of Bury St Edmunds hope to restore a 19th Century rooftop observatory, reports the East Anglian Daily Times. Originally build in the mid-1800s thanks to an early version of crowdfunding, the observatory fell into disrepair. It is hoped that an update will foster a new astronomy club and enhance local tourism. The Indian hill station of Matheran has similar objectives for its observatory and planetarium, reports DNA India. Besides attracting tourists to Matheran’s dark skies, the facility will be the cornerstone of local science education.

Britain hopes to capitalize on astronomy tourism’s growing popularity by establishing a network of Dark Sky Discovery Sites. The Monmouthshire Beacon reports that a stargazing event at Goytre Wharf is a practice run for more events in 2016 - the Wales Year of Adventure. Further north, the Forest of Bowland received Dark Sky Discovery Site status, the Lancashire Evening Post reports.

More traditional tour operators are also capitalizing on astronomy tourism. Princess Cruises and Discovery Channel expanded their Discovery at Sea program to include stargazing options. Astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi — a Science Channel presenter — will join select cruises and his lectures will be available on stateroom TV’s. (Because sitting in a room watching TV is what you want to do on a cruise). The Examiner wrote about “Stargazing in comfort and style”. Whether its a New York penthouse or a desert resort, the well-heeled stargazer has plenty of options to watch the stars and get pampered at the same time.