Amateur Space Weekly - December 5

Nasa's Juno spacecraft snapped this picture of Earth on its way to Jupiter. Scientists will use the JunoCam to study Jupiter's atmosphere, but they want the public's help deciding where to point the camera. Check out the story below. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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: Making astronomy accessible to kids requires a different approach. Ireland's Blackrock Castle Observatory connects them to observatories on the other side of the world. Yale University brings the students to them. Astronomy clubs donate telescopes to local libraries.
  • Space Makers: The first satellite built by primary school students is on the launchpad, a UK rocketry contest, and a prize-winning Near Space project.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Michigan school kids propose research for the International Space Station, the European Space Agency doubles its microgravity drop tower program.
  • Exploring Earth: Amateurs make communities weather-ready, the UK's Amateur Meteorologists' Meeting, public spying on deforestation... from space.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Crowdsourcing asteroid research, Nasa jupiter mission asks the public for help, mapping auroras through social media.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Hubble scientists need help studying exoplanets, with only a history degree an amateur becomes an astronomy ambassador.

Featured News

Engaging more people in astronomy faces several challenges. The equipment can be expensive and mystifying. Finding something in the night sky is hard for the novice. Worst of all, it has to happen at night when most people are home with their families. Several reports appeared this week about people trying to make astronomy more convenient.

Ireland’s Blackrock Castle Observatory has found a way to make school-day astronomy more convenient. Introducing astronomy programs in primary and secondary schools is a challenge for teachers. Students can only observe one star (and one planet) during the day. The only way to observe more of our Universe requires attending a late-night after school session. Add on the budget challenges teachers face when purchasing telescopes. Blackrock Castle Observatory's Tara Project partners with observatories on the other side of the planet where it is night during the Irish school-day. Ireland’s students can now make observations with the University of California Lick Observatory’s telescopes, Metroactive reports. An Irish Examiner article earlier this year described the Tara Project’s partnership with an observatory in India.

Yale University runs a 4-week summer astrophysics program that lets dozens of high school students from around the world conduct their own research. The students attend classes in physics, computational science, and other topics. They also work side-by-side with Yale’s astronomers to conduct research on the university’s telescopes. Academic director Michael Faison explains in the Yale press release that the project "gives them a big head start on college and a career in science.” 

One Virginia library’s telescope loan program is so popular that there is a six month wait, The Roanoke Times reports. Astronomy clubs have active programs to get the public - and students in particular - looking at the night sky. Star parties introduce the public to the night sky and let them try different telescopes. The donation of telescopes to public libraries is an increasingly popular way for astronomy clubs to reach even more people. The libraries already have systems to manage loaned objects - that’s what they do. The astronomy clubs’ members maintain the equipment and teach classes for the libraries’ patrons. 

Space Makers

This week’s stories about people getting hands-on with space technology all focus on the educational benefits. Giving technology to students lets them apply their classroom learning in a hands-on project. They get to see for themselves how theory works - or doesn’t work - in the real world. Along the way they get a taste for what life as an engineer or scientist is like that they carry with them through school and into their future careers.

The most amazing story hasn’t quite happened yet since weather delayed the launch of Nasa’s latest space station resupply mission. Riding along with the space agency’s equipment is the first satellite built by primary school students. The launch crowns a three-year effort that involved students at all levels from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. They tested prototypes on high altitude balloon flights and suborbital rocket launches much like Nasa’s engineers as they develop their space missions. More than 800 students contributed to the project. But it won’t stop there. Once astronauts release STMSat-1 into orbit, more than 10,000 students around the world will receive images from the satellite as it passes over head. 

Freshman computer engineering major Evan Swinney is an example of how space making enhances students’ careers. Swinney was a member of his Alabama high school’s after school engineering club. Last year they decided to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge - and they won the national championship! From there the team travelled to France where they represented the United States in the International Rocketry Challenge - and they won again! Swinney was the only senior on the team and had already been accepted to the University of Alabama Huntsville on a partial scholarship. His rocket-building accomplishments, however, earned him a full-ride scholarship that will let him graduate debt-free. That gives Swinney the freedom to pursue his dreams. As he said in the university’s press release: “Anything that combines computers and space exploration would be the best because it ties together my hobbies as well as my academic interests."

The United Kingdom Students for the Exploration and Development of Space conducts their own rocket-making contest. The primary objective is to reach the highest altitude possible with a G-class rocket motor. The judges will also evaluate the quality of the teams’ work. Registration closes at the end of December and launches must be complete by next July. All the students need is a clear day for launch… how hard could that be in Britain?

A team of women engineering students sent a mini-CubeSat into the stratosphere, Recordnet reports. Former Nasa astronaut Jose Hernandez invited the University of the Pacific students to design a camera system that could survive the near vacuum and extreme temperatures of Near Space. This kind of project has real-world parallels. Nasa often uses high altitude balloons to test equipment before sending it into space. The project earned the team a second place prize at the Society of Women Engineers national convention.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program sends dozens of student experiments to the International Space Station every year. Communities conduct a peer-review selection process to pick the top three research proposals from teams of middle or high school students. An expert panel selects the best project to send into orbit. Twenty-two communities in the US and Canada are part of the ninth SSEP mission which will launch to the space station next year. The Record-Eagle reported that 811 students at Michigan’s Traverse City Senior High School submitted 200 microgravity research proposals. The final three projects propose studying the effect of microgravity on human cell growth, on algae development, or on fluid interactions.

Space agencies offer many programs that prepare undergraduates for careers in the space industry. The programs have been so popular that the European Space Agency doubled the number of teams in the Drop Your Thesis! microgravity program. With mentorship from the space agency’s scientists and engineers, the teams design experiments for the 146-meter tall ZARM Drop Tower. Experiments are exposed to between 4.7 and 9.3 seconds of microgravity as they fall in the tower. That isn’t much time, but the wait to get results is nowhere near as long as it is for space experiments. Registration for the 2016 Drop Your Thesis! program closes in mid-December.

Exploring Earth

Volunteer storm-spotters play an important role keeping their communities safe. Official weather stations are often tens or hundreds of miles apart. Weather radars can't see what is happening on the ground - and the further away from the tower, the worse it gets. Volunteers in programs like Skywarn, COOP, and COCORAHS let meteorologists know what is really happening beneath the radar. New York's Warren County has linked volunteer weather-spotters with the county's emergency management network, the Post Star reports. That let the county receive "storm ready" certification from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration - and made the community safer.

Weather is a particularly British fascination. Other countries’ professional meteorology societies may accept amateurs. The Royal Meteorological Society embraces them. Nearly half of RMS members are amateurs, many of whom actively collect and analyze weather data. The RMS just announced that the third Amateur Meteorologists’ Meeting will occur next September. The previous conference included sessions on citizen science, amateurs’ historical roles in weather observations, and modern observing techniques. 

Spy satellites were once (and still are) the ultimate in classified space technologies. Thanks to Moore’s Law and the fleets of commercial remote sensing satellites it enabled, everyone can see high-resolution images of the planet. Some even use those images to improve life on Earth. UrtheCast has given Global Forest Watch a massive set of images that covers the most threatened forest lands in the world. Soon anyone can go to the GFW website and see for themselves how deforestation and urbanization are destroying forests.

Exploring the Solar System

Czech scientists launched Asteroids@Home, a distributed computing project that enlists help from thousands of volunteers to reconstruct the shape of asteroids. Distributed computing projects let scientists create virtual supercomputers through the volunteers’ donation of their personal computers’ unused processing power. (I’ve written before about MilkyWay@Home’s search for dark matter through distributed computing.) The Asteroids@Home scientists want to reconstruct asteroid physical properties like shape, spin, and period from the asteroids’ light curves - the way sunlight reflected off the asteroid varies with time. These properties have only been measured for a relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of known asteroids. The project’s scientists published a description of the project in the journalAstronomy and Computing (DOI 10.1016/j.ascom.2015.09.004, arXiv preprint: 1511.08640).

Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter needs help from amateur astrophotographers. With deep space missions so rare and competition for time on the big telescopes so fierce, Outer Planets scientists rely on amateur astronomers to get regular images of Jupiter and Saturn. Some of the top amateurs can even snap pics of storms on Uranus and Neptune. Nasa's Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter next year to study the giant planet's gravitational and magnetic fields. Its JunoCam imager will study Jupiter's poles and atmosphere. But the Juno team wants the public to help. Amateur astronomers can capture sharp images of Jupiter's full disc, documenting the rapidly evolving storm systems. By submitting Jupiter images to the Juno mission site, amateurs can help the pros plan targets for JunoCam's close-up pics.

The Aurorasaurus Project's effort to crowdsource aurora observations hopes to improve space weather forecasting. Solar storms can disrupt communications and electrical networks - and threaten the health of astronauts in orbit. The sparse network of sensors space weather forecasters rely on produce low-resolution data. The USGS' network of 14 geomagnetic observatories, for example, is scattered across 15,000 kilometers from Guam to Puerto Rico. New Scientist explains how Aurorasaurus collects social media mentions of the aurora as well as direct reports from the public to create a real-time map of aurora activity. Besides making good science, the map lets the public know when and where to go to see the northern (and southern) lights.

Exploring Deep Space

Amateur astronomer Michael Prokosch’s outreach efforts earned him membership in the Astronomy in Chile Educators and Ambassador Program, the Huntsville Item reports. Prokosch graduated with a degree in history, but his passion for astronomy landed him a job running the observatory at Sam Houston State University. The National Science Foundation-funded Ambassador program took Prokosch and other educators to Chile to tour the high altitude observatories that push the boundaries of science.

Hubble scientists need amateurs’ help studying exoplanets, Sky & Telescope reports. Amateur astronomers first observed an exoplanet in 2000, not long after the pros. Moore's Law has improved amateur technology to the point where amateurs can even help the pros conduct research. The Hubble Space Telescope is in such high demand that astronomers only get to use it for a limited number of orbits. Amateurs on the other hand can make observations any clear night of the year. Sky & Telescope ran this announcement about a pro-am project that will combine amateur exoplanet observations with Hubble observations