Amateur Space Weekly - December 13

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: AAVSO receives 30,000,000th variable star observation from an amateur astronomer.
  • Space Makers: Teen rocketeers in India and the US, plus tracking amateur satellites.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Kids controlling robots on the space station
  • Exploring Earth: Citizen science projects monitor Antarctica, measure light pollution, and report weather. A Colorado school uses Earth observation in science classes.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Nevada schools exploring the Kuiper Belt, Nasa needs amateur pictures of Jupiter, tracking meteors in California and Ireland, and British floods wash out aurora watchers.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen scientists spot exoplanets and soon gravity waves. Become an astronomy ambassador.
  • Other News in Amateur Space Exploration: Outreach by amateur astronomers in Maine

Featured News

The American Association of Variable Star Observers received its 30,000,000th observation from an amateur astronomer. Variable star astronomy - the measurement of ways stars regularly brighten and dim - has been a rich field of professional and amateur collaboration. The AAVSO has collected these measurements for more than a century to create a database that astrophysicists rely on for their research. Amateur astronomer Josch Hambsch is German but lives beneath cloudy Belgian skies. To get around this he remotely operates his own telescope in Chile where he collected the milestone observation. I interviewed Josch earlier this year after he helped astronomers measure an exoplanet’s rings:

Space Makers

Model rocketry is a gateway to student interest in science and engineering careers. It's an affordable and safe way for kids to apply their classroom physics in the real world. The Indian Express wrote about a new model rocketry festival that introduces rocket science to hundreds of kids in northern India. Former rocket scientists from India's space agency will help the students launch model rockets and talk to them about careers in the Indian space industry.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge is an annual contest that lets teens across the United States compete for prizes and scholarships... by launching rockets. The Gretna Breeze wrote about a team of Nebraska rocketeers who finished 12th overall in the 2015 contest. They hope to build on that experience as the train for next year's championship.

Amateurs sent the first DIY satellite into orbit just a few years after Sputnik. More than 85 amateur satellites have reached orbit in the decades since. American makers at AMSAT continue the tradition of that first amateur satellite. They announced that ham radio enthusiasts in Texas have set up an amateur satellite ground station. It will improve communication with amateur satellites in high Earth orbit, joining a ground station in San Diego. Work is under way to recruit a ground station on the east coast to ensure nation-wide coverage.

Amateurs in Zero-G

MIT and Nasa conduct the Zero Robotics contest to give teens around the world a shot at controlling robots on the International Space Station to encourage the students’ interest in programming. The teens must direct the Spheres robots through a virtual obstacle course within the space station that simulates some aspect of space travel. During the preliminary rounds the students upload their code to a simulator. In the semifinal round, teams must partner with two other teams - one of which must be in another country. Fortunately code bridges both distance and culture. As the teams refine their programs, the Zero Robotics judges evaluate how efficiently the code achieves the contest's objectives. Newsplex wrote about Virginia teens who reached the finals for the fourth year in a row. Working with students in California and Greece, they will take control of the space robots in January's finals.

Exploring Earth

Tourists can help scientists track changes in the Arctic and Antarctic by participating in citizen science projects. This article from National Post describes efforts to measure properties of melt ponds on Arctic ice sheets and whale populations in Antarctic seas. Citizen science gets its power from the sheer number of people willing to take part. The handful of scientists studying melt ponds, for example, doesn't compare to the thousands of tourists who take (and pay for) Arctic cruises.

Verlust der Nacht uses citizen science to measure light pollution. The light pouring from a more urbanized planet not only masks the stars from view but also impacts human health and disrupts animal behavior. The German citizen science project, Loss of the Night in English, crowdsources public counts of the stars visible at night. This translates into a measurement of light pollution. Scientific Computing reported that the project's light pollution data is now publicly available. The My Sky at Night website lets anyone see how poorly their communities manage light pollution - and hopefully will lead them to take action.

Analyzing space-based images of Earth was once limited to intelligence agencies and elite planetary scientists. Growing fleets of Earth observation satellites are now making data from space available to businesses, communities, and activitists. However they struggle to find people skilled in analyzing remote sensing data. The Times-Call’s Amy Bounds wrote about a Colorado high school that makes Earth observation part of the science curriculum. Teachers from Erie High School attended a workshop at satellite operator DigitalGlobe’s headquarters where they learned how images from space help farmers, planners, developers, and environmental and human rights groups.

Volunteers with theUnited States’ Cooperative Observers Program have recorded local weather conditions for the National Weather Service since 1870. More than 8700 volunteers now support the network, submitting daily recordings of temperature and precipitation to the weather agency's meteorologists. Why rely on normal people rather than high tech sensors and radars? Weather is much more local than the technology (and budgets) can support. The volunteers fill in the gaps in the meteorologists' more advanced sensor networks to provide data crucial to accurate forecasts. The Effingham Daily News' Bill Grimes writes about an Illinois volunteer weather monitor who spent more than 19 years assisting the National Weather Service.

Exploring the Solar System

Nevada high schools are exploring the Kuiper Belt, the Boulder City Review’s Randy Faehnrich wrote. The schools are part of RECON, a network of communities in the western US who help professional scientists explore the Solar System beyond Neptune. Like Pluto, these Kuiper Belt Objects are so distant that they appear as points of light in the biggest telescopes. But when one of these objects passes between a distant star and Earth (called an occultation), it casts a shadow across our planet's surface. Stretching in a line between the Canadian and Mexican borders, RECON’s communities measure the time it takes the shadow to pass. The Kuiper Belt Object's irregular shape means each site records a different time. RECON's scientists convert the times into distances and reconstruct the object's shape. They can even detect rings and moons circling the KBO’s. The teachers interviewed in this article have just begun to adapt the project into their curricula. For the next five years their students will help explore the most distant reaches of the Solar System.

Nasa’s mission to Jupiter has turned to the public for help. The Juno spacecraft will have an elongated orbit around the gas giant. That means at the farthest point in Juno's orbit the planet will dwindle to a few pixels across in Juno's cameras. Fortunately amateur astronomers can take pictures of Jupiter that rival those taken by professional observatories only a few decades ago. The Smithsonian Magazine explains how astrophotographers can give Nasa their own images of Jupiter. The public will vote on the best places for Juno to study.

Meteorite hunters found the remains of a fireball that streaked through California’s night sky, the Paso Robles Daily News’ Jackie Iddings reported. While most meteors are little more than grains of dust left behind by ancient comets, rocky objects produce brilliant fireballs. Meteorites are the remains of these asteroid fragments that survive entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Groups like the American Meteor Society or the International Meteor Organization collect public reports of fireballs to help professional scientists and meteorite hunters find the impact site. The Paso Robles Daily News reports how a meteorite hunter who used more than 300 public reports of a fireball over California to a near-by pasture.

A call went out to the Irish public to count meteors during this weekend's Geminid meteor shower, the Independent reports. Astronomy Ireland is the country's largest astronomy club. It will collect the reports to measure the intensity of this year’s meteor shower.

This has been a stormy year in space weather, but a different kind of storm has hit Britain’s aurora spotters, the BBC reports. The storm Desmond caused widespread flooding that knocked out power in Lancaster. As a result, the British Isles' aurora alert service AuroraWatch UK will be without power for the next few days.

Exploring Deep Space

Planet Hunters is a citizen science project that enlists tens of thousands of people around the world to search for planets orbiting other stars. They analyze data from the Kepler Space Telescope that has already been studied by professional scientists and their sophisticated software. But normal people can beat the system. Many potential exoplanets fall through the cracks because the Kepler team's algorithm rejects data that don't meet its strict criteria. Planet Hunters' science team just published a paper explaining how citizen scientists are discovering exoplanets in orbits up to three times farther than Earth is from the Sun. Their blog post summarizes the results that are in their paper (arXiv: 1512.02559)

Syracuse University just announced that they will ask citizen scientists to help discover gravity waves. The sheer volume of data flowing from modern observatories is impossible for a single human to analyze. Instead scientists rely on sophisticated software that "learns" how to analyze the data. But who teaches these machine learning algorithms? Citizen scientists. The human ability to recognize patterns comes in handy when the data is too "fuzzy" or unpredictable for traditional software. The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory will produce such a flood of data that the project's scientists cannot hope to look at it themselves. The citizen science project will let the public analyze the data to create a training session for the software. As the software improves, the project will help its volunteers themselves get better at gravity wave spotting.

The Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program recruits amateur astronomers and educators to help communicate the work being done by the National Science Foundation’s observatories in Chile. Ambassadors visit the mountaintop observatories where they learn about the instruments and the science those instruments produce. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory opened registration for the 2016 season. Applications are due by January 31. The new ambassadors will travel to Chile in June. The National Science Foundation explained how educator Tim Spuck founded the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program.

Other News in Amateur Space Exploration

Several amateur astronomers in Maine were recognized for their efforts to promote awareness among students and the public. The Penobscot Bay Pilot profiled a high school science teacher who incorporates astronomy in his classroom. Right now his students are collecting data on local light pollution. The Sun Journal wrote about two retirees who have shared 30 years of marriage and amateur astronomy. They now share their love of the night sky with the local community by hosting star parties and sidewalk astronomy sessions.