The Week in Amateur Space Exploration - February 20

If you follow me on Twitter, you get my tweets as soon as I get any amateur space news. Every week I summarize the reports to give you a single snapshot - in over 140 characters - of how many different ways people like you explore space. 

Enabling Amateur Space Exploration

The lower images taken by amateur astronomers in 2012 show the changing shape of a plume high in the Martian atmosphere. Credit: W. Jaeschke and D. Parker Source: Esa

A strange cloud over Mars generated widespread media coverage this week. An amateur astronomer spotted a strange cloud rising over the limb of Mars in 2012. He shared it with other amateurs who confirmed its presence. Intrigued, planetary scientist Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of Spain’s Universidad del País Vasco spent the past two years investigating the cloud. A specialist in planetary atmospheres, Sanchez-Lavega knew current models of the martian atmosphere didn’t allow for clouds to rise 250 km above the surface. He and his  fellow researchers proposed several possible explanations but need more research to pin it down. For more details you can read the ESA press release, the EHU press release (in Spanish), or the published Nature Letter (DOI: 10.1038/nature14162 behind paywall)

What does this mean for amateurs? The media led with the man-bites-dog story - amateurs made a discovery that scientists can’t explain - but then focused on the press release’s story about the science. The untold story is that planetary scientists regularly turn to amateur astronomers for help. The fleet of spacecraft orbiting the planets are too close to get the global views that amateur astronomers capture with their ground-based telescopes. Those pictures often provide evidence professionals justify observing time at the major observatories and space telescopes. The "mysterious" clouds highlights the important role amateurs can play exploring the Solar System. 

Several news reports appeared related to space and astronomy tourism. The Times wrote about the growing role of astronomy tourism in Northumberland. A third of the county in northern England is an International Dark Sky Association gold-tier dark sky site. While the Kielder Observatory with its 14 and 20 inch telescopes is a big draw, The Times reported, local businesses are getting in on the act. The Battlesteads Hotel, for example, is building its own observatory to serve the growing number of tourists.

Astronomy tourism in Northern England. Meanwhile the Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald ran stories about rocketplane and near space balloon rides for wealth tourists. Bizwomen interviewed Jane Poynter, the CEO of near space tourism company World View, who said “"Seeing Earth from space for the first time, you really see with your own eyes that this planet, everyone on it is on this planet together.”

What does this mean for amateurs? More businesses see a market in amateur space exploration. For some it’s serving the needs of amateur astronomers by providing telescopes and dark observing sites for others it’s carrying people into the stratosphere. As more amateurs realize they can explore space in their own small way rather than watching from the sidelines, more businesses will begin serving amateurs’ needs.

Exploring Deep Space

NGC 1433 is a Seyfert Galaxy 32 million light years from the Milky Way. In the galaxy's center lies a supermassive black hole that's gobbling up surrounding matter. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASAAcknowledgements: D. Calzetti (UMass) and the LEGUS Team

Tennessee’s Kingsport Times-News spoke with local high school senior Kayla Jenkins and her science teacher Thomas Rutherford about their research into galactic redshift. They were participants in Nitarp, the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program. Nitarp matches high school science teachers with professional astronomers to conduct a year long research project using data from Nasa’s space telescopes. Jenkins and Rutherford were part of a team led by Caltech’s Varoujan Gourjian that analyzed the redshift of 11,000 Seyfert galaxies to “find a correlation between the color and luminosity of the hot gas around supermassive black holes at the centers of [the galaxies].”

Deutche Welle interviewed International Astronomical Union secretary general Dr. Thierry Montmerle about the IAU’s Name Exoworlds Contest. Through an elaborate process the public will get to name a handful of exoplanets from an original list of more than 300. Montmerle told Deutche Welle that the public may picks names from Star Wars movies. If so he will ask George Lucas to let the IAU use the names without paying a licensing fee.

Exploring the Solar System

Meteors streaked over the skies of New Zealand and the United States. A Kiwi motorist caught the fireball in his dashcam while driving through Auckland. More than 120 people in the northeastern United States reported the Pittsburgh fireball to the American Meteor Society. Australian researchers created the Fireballs in the Sky app to collect meteor reports from Down Under. The Australian featured the crowdsourcing program which has as many as 20,000 users.

The Atlantic interviewed Canadian iPhone astrophotographer Andrew Symes about using smartphones to take pictures through telescopes. Symes provides more detail on a 2013 post to his website.

Arizona Education News featured middle school students who use data from Nasa’s Mars orbiters to explore the red planet. As part of Arizona State University’s Mars Student Imaging Project, the students studied the abundance of water-related minerals at different depths of the Valles Marineris canyon system. Depending on the research project, the MSIP lets students propose new pictures be taken by the Themis camera on Nasa’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Past participants have studied martian dust storms and found skylight holes in lava tubes.

Exploring the Planet Earth

A tianguis, or open-air market, in Mexico City. This is just one of the images the Daily Overview distributes to show civilization's presence on Earth. Source: Daily Overview

Daily Overview is a new website that posts a daily image of Earth from space. Its founders were inspired by Frank White’s concept of The Overview Effect - the transformation that occurs when people see our planet from space. Archdaily reported that the Daily Overview displays images that document “for better or worse” humanity’s impact on the landscape

There are more direct ways to make the world a better place using images from space. NPR ran a story about SkyTruth’s use of satellite data to track fish pirates whose illegal fishing depletes fisheries. The Voice of America reported on the Satellite Sentinel Project’s efforts to fight ivory poaching that finances human rights abuse in Africa.

The US Geological Survey’s Did You Feel It program received 1230 reports from people who felt earthquakes. The highest response rates came from earthquakes in Washington (M4.3, 322 reports), Chile (M5.4, 272), British Columbia (M3.4, 150), Dominican Republic (M4.5, 76), and Hawaii (M3.3, 46).

The harsh winter weather hitting the eastern half of the United States highlights the important role the public can play. Michigan’s mlive spoke with National Weather Service meteorologist Walt Felver about the Skywarn storm-spotting program. "Spotters help us verify what we're seeing on radar or they tell us what's happening that radar isn't picking up,” Felver said. Broadcast meteorologist Cindy Morgan asked viewers of Austin’s KAAL-TV to use Noaa’s mPing smartphone app to report extreme weather. The data helps forecasters see what’s happening between the ground and the lowest reaches of weather radar.

Amateurs in Microgravity

Scientific American wrote about student research on the International Space Station. Made possible through the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, middle and high school students around the United States send dozens of microgravity experiments into space every year. Students in Canada, Japan, and ESA/EU member nations can participate through the Clarke Institute.

Several stories ran about SSEP Mission 6’s return from the International Space Station. These are the student experiments originally destroyed in the Antares launch vehicle explosion. One of the greatest stories is this NBCNews report of Michigan 8th grade girls, all Iraqi refugees, who overcame language barriers to become young space scientists.

SSEP Mission 7 will launch this spring and Mission 8 later this year. Schools around the country are preparing their research and getting attention from local media.

Nanoracks’ orbiting lab on the ISS and the emerging suborbital industry promise to open microgravity research beyond traditional space researchers. Undergraduates, secondary school students, teacher programs, and private citizens will have the chance to explore microgravity’s effects. Two conferences will highlight the new opportunities. Stanford’s Student Space Initiative held a one-day conference about research on the ISS. In May the New Space Researchers Workshop will cover the full range of opportunities for microgravity researchers and the public.

Making Spaceships

Recovering the winning rocket at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Nasa's budget limited last year's Student Launch program to universities, but high school students are returning for the 2015 Student Launch. Credit: Nasa/MSFC

Students at Brazil’s Technology Institute of Aeronautics built the AESP-14 cubesat. Astronauts on the ISS released the satellite into orbit. Now the AESP-14 team has asked radio amateurs to help track their satellite. There’s a growing need to coordinate participation of radio amateurs as more Brazilian satellites reach orbit, leading to the creation of amateur satellite group Amsat-Brazil. In other amateur satellite news, the University of Michigan’s student-built Grifex satellite began transmitting on amateur radio frequencies and All Nation University College built Ghana’s first amateur satellite ground station.

In near space news, students at Brunel University of London will conduct a series of high-altitude balloon flights. One will be a stratospheric research flight while the other will lift a glider 3,800 meters for a flight test. Primary school students across the United Kingdom will get to conduct their own near space balloon flights thanks to a contest from education content management software company Innovate. The Ballymena Times featured the student explorers at Northern Ireland’s Kells and Connor Primary School who will plan and build the entire mission.

The Advertiser wrote about an Irish space program for community college students in Galway. Students will build and launch a near space balloon mission as well as participate in the European Space Agency’s Cansat Competition.

Vermont Public Radio wrote about how Nasa wants community college students’ help designing plans for Mars. The Nasa Community College Aerospace Scholars conducts online training and briefings with Nasa personnel and then invites scholars to the Johnson Space Center to participate in a mock mission planning session.

Nasa’s Student Launch program challenges high school and college teams to build rockets that can launch scientific payloads thousands of feet in the air. KTVA featured the University of Alaska Anchorage students taking part in the contest while North Carolina's Herald Sun highlighted Durham Public Schools need to cover the travel expenses of its rocketeers.

A new Kickstarter project is raising money for a high performance rocket. Off duty aerospace engineers with Project Earendel have designed an open source, Arduino-controlled, liquid fueled rocket that they hope to launch across the Karman Line into space.

Matteo Borri recently returned from an expedition to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station. He describes at H+ Magazine how the Mars crew evaluated the medical applications of 3d printing.