Amateur Space Weekly - November 21

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.

Citizen Science Today made my article about the MilkyWay@Home project’s crowdfunding a November Editor’s Choice.

TL;DR? Jump to:

  • Featured News: Canadian undergraduates explore Utah deserts with Canadian Space Agency rover
  • Space Makers: A model rocketry accident, New Hampshire teens study gamma rays in Near Space, and more university CubeSats to reach orbit
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Middle schoolers plan microgravity research and US teens can send DNA research into orbit.
  • Exploring Outer Space: A swarm of fireballs, crowdsourcing exoplanet discoveries, and astronomy in the community.

Featured News

No, this isn't Mars. The Canadian Space Agency took this panorama with its Mars Exploration Science Rover in the Utah desert. A team of Canadian students is learning how to conduct a planetary mission by directing the rover's operations. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

The Canadian Space Agency and Western University are in the middle of a student powered Mars analog mission. Space agencies use planetary analog projects to test technology and procedures in advance of space missions. Analog projects also serve an educational role, giving undergraduates hands-on experience with an end-to-end “space mission” before they enter the workforce. A virtual team of 35 undergraduate, graduate, and post doc students from Canadian universities direct the CSA’s Mars Exploration Science Rover as it explores the deserts of the American southwest. The students plan the rover’s daily operations and analyze the data it beams back home. The CSA’s scientists and rover engineers mentor the students and control the rover. 

“This project is a teaching mission,” the CSA press release says, “designed to offer the most realistic experience of exploring Mars available on Earth.” The London Free Press interviewed Western University professor Gordon Osinski about the project and its value to the participating students. “The ultimate goal is for one of those students to be doing an actual mission on Mars one day,” Osinski said.

The Mars Society hosts the Canadian rover at its Mars Desert Research Station in the deserts of southern Utah. Every year dozens of six-person teams visit the MDRS to conduct analog missions that may help future human missions to the red planet. It is also home the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge. Undergraduate teams from around the world descend on Utah every June to pit their rover designs against the desert terrain. The Daily Titan wrote about California State University Fullerton’s new Mars rover team. They plan to use virtual reality headsets and touch-free controls to guide the rover.

Space Makers

Model rocketry has thrived for six decades thanks to its impeccable safety record. Even though inexperienced kids and adults launch explosives-powered rockets thousands of feet in the air, injuries are extremely rare. But last weekend Michael Bentley the leader of a California Boy Scout troop died in a freak rocket accident, San Bernardino’s The Sun reports. He was struck in the face by a falling rocket and died of his injuries in a local hospital.

One reason for model rocketry’s success has been its role inspiring kids to study science and math. The New Zealand Herald, for example, described how the Wairarapa maker community gives local kids a taste for rocket science by letting them design their own water rockets. The Fort Leavenworth Lamp described a Kansas youth center’s rocketry program which uses more traditional black powder motors.

Near Space ballooning is another low-cost way to get kids involved in science and math. The University of New Hampshire lets local teens take part in faculty Near Space research projects, the Concord Monitor reports. The weather balloon they launch into the stratosphere this weekend will carry a professor’s experimental gamma ray detector.

United Launch Alliance, one of America’s top rocket companies, wants to launch more university satellites into orbit. CubeSats let students build their own space mission quickly and affordably. Competition for space on a launch vehicle, however, makes it difficult for these projects to reach orbit. ULA’s Transformational CubeSat Launch Program will reserve space on the rocket company’s launches specifically for university projects.

While many of the Google Lunar X-Prize competitors run like traditional businesses, Japan’s Team Hakuto takes a different approach to lunar exploration, Air & Space Magazine reports. About 90% of the work is done by volunteers, many of them from non-technical fields like design and business. The organization itself does not have a hierarchy. Members choose who to work with on the various projects needed to send a rover to the Moon.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The International Space Station hosts dozens of student science experiments every year. The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, for example, enlists entire communities into the space research process. The Santa Monica Lookout writes about a local middle school’s journey into space. As with professional science, the young researchers must propose projects to a series of review panels. Three finalists will travel to Washington, DC, next month where a panel of scientists and educators will award one team with a spot on a rocket launch in March. 

Genes in Space lets American teens send DNA research projects to the International Space Station. Students, individually or in teams, must propose a research project that examines some aspect of DNA in the space environment. Their research will rely on DNA polymerase chain reaction devices from miniPCR. Professional scientists will mentor five finalists who will present their proposals to an expert panel. The winning team will spend the next school year preparing their experiment for a spring 2017 launch into orbit. Last year’s winner 17 year old Anna-Sophia Boguraev from Westchester County, New York, will see her research into the effect of the space environment on the immune system travel to the space station next March.

Exploring Outer Space

The swarm of fireballs from the Taurid meteor stream continues to light up the night skies. This creates opportunities for amateur meteor spotters to capture photos and videos of the brilliant meteors. The Independent replayed a video of a fireball disintegrating over Dublin. A home security camera recorded another fireball over Ohio, The Weather Network reports. The American Meteor Society collected 75 reports of the Ohio fireball. Public reports help scientists and meteor enthusiasts track the fireball’s trajectory and narrow the range of any meteorite falls.

One of crowdsourcing’s strengths is the community that develops around the project. Their conversations, debates, and questions often leads to discoveries the project’s scientists never dreamed of. The Galaxy Zoo team took several community questions and turned them into a blog post that explains the underlying science of their latest project.

Planet Hunters’ lead scientist Debra Fischer spoke about the amateur search for exoplanets on Wisconsin Public Radio. (audio interview) Fischer explains that scientists rely on computer algorithms to filter the Kepler Space Telescope’s data stream. However, those algorithms are only as good as the rules embedded in the code. Amateurs excel at spotting oddball planets that the software ignores. One strange light curve may be a cloud of comets (not an alien artifact). Another exoplanet orbits two stars that orbit each other. You can search for other worlds at the Planet Hunters site.

Astronomy clubs and public observatories can pierce light polluted skies to reconnect the public with the night sky. The Las Cruces Sun-News wrote about the local astronomy club founded by Pluto-discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. The club members have an active outreach program and often visit local schools. The Albuquerque Journal wrote about a public observatory’s journey from after school program to the center of community life.