Amateur Space Weekly - November 28

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: Digitizing Nasa's Apollo-era lunar images may require citizen science
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Australian teens hack space robots, a California middle school could send spam into space
  • Exploring Earth: Spying fish poachers from space, personal weather stations improve forecasts, and simulating the effects of space weather
  • Exploring Outer Space: Where citizen scientists map Mars, low-cost exoplanet hunting, finding asteroid fragments in Alaska, and crowdfunding a Mars-analog rover
  • Other News in Amateur Space Exploration: Spotting tigers and stars in India, space debris rains on Spain, and an amateur observatory in New Mexico

Featured News

Could the next planetary citizen science project take us back to the Moon? The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis wrote about a project to digitize some of the Apollo Program's earliest images. In the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission Nasa launched seven robotic Surveyor missions to land on the Moon. The missions tested landing techniques and evaluated the lunar surface. The images were recorded on rolls of film and stored at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory where they’ve sat ever since. The LPL recently finished digitizing all of the images, but they ran into a snag before they could make the images public: computers can’t read the text. That means a human must read and transcribe each of the 93,000 images. 

In my opinion, the job is a perfect candidate for crowdsourcing. Programs like Zooniverse and CosmoQuest regularly ask the public to evaluate images from space — and even transcribe historical documents. Why not ask them to take on lunar history?

Amateurs in Zero-G

Aussie teens are planning to control robots on the International Space Station, the Daily Telegraph reports. They are competing in the latest Zero Robotics coding contest. Run by MIT and Nasa, the annual contest asks middle and high school students around the world to write programs that guide robots through a virtual zero-g obstacle course. The final teams get to upload their code to the space station's Spheres robots and watch live as the robots follow their commands. In the past the contest has only been open to students in the United States and European Space Agency member states. 2015 is an expansion year as ten Australian schools compete for the first time. Check out this introductory video to see what Zero Robotics is all about:

Would you send sheep’s blood, contact lenses, or spam into space for science? That’s the question California middle school students posed for a panel of space experts, the Santa Monica Daily Press reports. The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program asks schools to follow a peer-review process that selects a student-designed experiment to send to the International Space Station. The budding scientists at Lincoln Middle School created 80 proposals for experiments that would study the effects of weightlessness. A local panel of educators chose the three best proposals which students will present to the expert panel in Washington DC. The winning research project will ride a rocket to the space station in 2016.

Exploring Earth

Activists use data from space to counter illegal fishing, The Guardian reports. Once the province of intelligence agencies, high resolution imaging and satellite tracking systems have gone commercial. That lets environmental and human rights activists use data from space to advance their causes. SkyTruth pioneered the use of space data to monitor fracking and the BP oil spill. The Guardian’s article explains how, with help from Google Earth, Sky Truth plans to combat illegal fishing using a combination of sea, air, land, and space data.

The Arizona Republic’s holiday gifts for the weather geek in your life could save lives. Amateur weather spotters play important roles in weather forecasts. The extreme distances between professional weather stations and radars blinds meteorologists to what's really happening on the ground. Data from personal weather stations around the country flow into networks like the Citizen Weather Observer Program and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow network, giving professional forecasters a snapshot of what is really happening beneath the radar.

Weather doesn’t just happen on Earth. The Sun’s turbulent surface can erupt, sending solar storms streaming across the Solar System. A massive solar storm could cripple our tech-intensive economy as power surges knock out satellites and power grids. Earlier this month the US Department of Defense conducted a simulation exercise to see how quickly amateurs could rebuild communications networks in the event of a solar storm. The Amateur Radio Relay League reports that volunteer ham radio operators successfully established links with 26% of the counties in the United States despite being limited to specific bandwidths and technologies.

Exploring Outer Space

Alaskans are searching for fragments of the Solar System, the Peterburg Pilot reports. The easiest way for planetary scientists to get samples of asteroids and planets is to let fragments fall to Earth. Finding meteorites is much cheaper than launching asteroid sample return missions. Thanks to public reports of fireballs in the night sky, scientists can trace the meteors' paths and possible meteorite landing sites. After the American Meteor Society received several fireball reports from Alaska last weekend, a Nasa meteor expert explained to the Peterburg Pilot how locals could recognize a meteorite.

A Missouri State University undergraduate has lowered the cost of amateur exoplanet research. Amateur astronomers first detected planets orbiting other stars at the turn of this century. They and most amateurs since then adopted the same transit technique used by the Kepler Space Telescope. Advanced techniques like radial velocity measurements, however, have required large telescopes beyond the reach of most amateurs. MSU senior Claire Geneser explains in this video how four 8-inch telescopes commonly used by amateurs replaces a single 16-inch telescope and reduces the cost of radial velocity setup from $100,000 to around $8,000:

The Planet Four blog mapped the sites where its citizen scientists are exploring Mars. The project’s scientists hope crowdsourcing will give them better insights into the red planet’s seasonal changes and wind patterns. Volunteers view high-resolution images from select sites at Mars’ south pole where every spring “fans” and “blotches” appear on the frosted surface.

Undergraduates at Florida Tech hope crowdfunding will get their Mars rover to Utah. That’s where the Mars Society conducts its annual University Rover Challenge. Schools around the world send teams to test their rover designs in the deserts of southern Utah. The tests simulate the robot-assisted activities that future human missions to Mars will undertake. For the students at Florida Tech, crowdfunding may be the only way to raise the money to build their rover and offset the costs of competing.

Other News in Amateur Space Exploration

The Pune Mirror reported that a tiger reserve in India will turn eco-tourists into astro-tourists. Visitors to the Pench Tiger Reserve often had nothing to do at the end of their safari. The reserve’s remote location gives it pollution-free skies which are perfect for stargazing with the new 10-inch telescope installed by the park staff.

The rain in Spain falls mainly… from space? A team of amateur satellite spotters became space investigators after a chunk of space debris landed in Spain. They determined that it was part of an upper stage rocket used to place a classified US satellite into orbit. If their full description is too detailed, Forbes provides a good summary.

Amateur astronomy takes many shapes from stargazing to scientific research. Like any hobby what you do is just a question of time, effort, and money. The Taos News wrote about a former airline pilot who built his mountainside observatory to enjoy the dark skies over New Mexico. The automated telescope lets him cover the full range of amateur astronomy. He helps his local community enjoy the beauty of the night skies and he collects data to help professional astronomers in their research.