The Week in Amateur Space - February 6

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

Tech in Asia wrote about Singapore’s emerging space industry. As the small satellite revolution advances, Singapore’s strengths in electronics and programming give the city-state a shot at building spacecraft. Yi-Hsen Gian, chief information officer of the Singapore Economic Development Board told Tech in Asia “Satellites are actually just computers with radios and solar panels…. So these are all things Singapore already has over the years in our experience making semiconductors, in making consumer electronics, in making handphones and parts.”

What does this mean for amateurs? The story demonstrates the way Moore’s Law drives the globalization of space exploration. The commoditization of space technologies like CubeSats make space more accessible than ever. Countries like Singapore use these technologies to join the traditional space powers as space-faring nations. Those same trends place space technologies in the hands of amateurs around the world. Part-time rocket scientists build suborbital rockets. High school students build their own cosmic ray observatories. And teenagers regularly send research to the International Space Station. Space isn’t just for the professionals anymore - it’s for us all.

Exploring Deep Space

The yellowballs at the center of this image are glowing shells of gas surrounding newly born large, hot stars. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

The yellowballs at the center of this image are glowing shells of gas surrounding newly born large, hot stars. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Media coverage of “yellowballs” continued this week. (Although few provide more information than the original Iowa State University press release) The citizen scientists who volunteer their time at the Milky Way Project flagged images that showed fuzzy yellow objects. The project’s scientists looked into it and believe yellowballs are large, young stars at early stages in their lifecycle.

A South Carolina science teacher and Nasa will study star formation, Go Upstate reports. Garrison Hall, a middle school science teacher, will join the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Project (Nitarp). The program pairs science teachers with professional astronomers to conduct a year-long original research project. Nitarp’s pro/am teams use data from Nasa’s space telescope archives. Hall’s team will study star formation in a nebula.

Dark sites in Wales help astronomy education and outreach, Wales Online reports. Secondary school students in the UK can take astronomy to meet their science requirements. Dark Sky Wales conducts observing sessions for students and teachers at various dark sky sites north of Cardiff.

The Physics Students Society at Lousiana State University are driving astronomy to local schools, the LSU Reveille reported. Their refurbished truck, the Mobile Astronomy Resource System, carries a portable planetarium, telescopes, and science demonstrations. “We want to show kids that STEM fields are fun and not as hard as [some] think it is,” research associate Bethany Broekhoven told the Revielle.

Exploring the Solar System

You can find all sorts of images from across the Solar System in Nasa's Planetary Photojournal. This is a detail from an image of Jupiter the Cassini space probe took on the way to Saturn. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

You can find all sorts of images from across the Solar System in Nasa's Planetary Photojournal. This is a detail from an image of Jupiter the Cassini space probe took on the way to Saturn. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Sixty communities in the western United States will explore the farthest reaches of the Solar System as part of the Research and Education Collaboration Occulation Network. The combined network will study objects beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt. Nevada’s Carson Now explained how high school students and amateur astronomers in Carson City will take part in the program.

[You can get more details in my interview with Recon scientists Marc Buie and John Keller.]

The Planetary Society posted another update from a past Shoemaker Grant recipient. The grants go to amateur astronomers who study asteroids Bob Holmes received a grant in 2009 that let him upgrade the CCD camera on one of his telescopes. His Astronomical Research Institute has submitted over 83,000 observations to the Minor Planet Center since 2006. The camera lets Holmes monitor some of the faintest asteroids in the night sky.

The Times of Israel reported on the country’s Space Week. The festivities highlighted SpaceIL and legacy of Ilan Ramon. Ramon was Israel’s first astronaut and one of the seven shuttle crew members who died in the Columbia accident. SpaceIL is the Isreali entrant in the Google Lunar X-Prize - the private race to send robots to the Moon. Both SpaceIL and the Ramon Foundation use space exploration to inspire Israel’s children to study science and mathematics.

AuroraWatch-UK released an iPhone app for British aurora spotters. A service of Lancaster University, AuroraWatch UK monitors geomagnetic sensors across Great Britain an issues alerts to scientists and amateur aurora-spotters when conditions could generate the aurora borealis. The new app provides real-time tracking of geomagnetic conditions and notifications of potential aurorae. “Seeing the Aurora is often on people’s bucket list and we hope this will make it easier,” said Lancaster University physics professor Jim Wild.

Exploring the Planet Earth

You can get images like this from Nasa's Gateway to Astronaut Photographs of Earth. This is a crop from an original photo taken last year from the International Space Station, but you can find pictures taken from the earliest days of America's space program. Credit: Nasa

You can get images like this from Nasa's Gateway to Astronaut Photographs of Earth. This is a crop from an original photo taken last year from the International Space Station, but you can find pictures taken from the earliest days of America's space program. Credit: Nasa

The Earth seems to be shaking more than usual - maybe due to the use of fracking in oil fields or may be due to plate tectonics. Or it may be that social media and the 24x7 news cycle magnify quakes in our consciousness. When 280 people across northern Oklahoma reported a magnitude 4.2 earthquake, local media like KWCH jumped on the story. More than 2000 people reported feeling a less intense magnitude 3.8 quake in the English Midlands near Oakham. Government geological agencies collect these reports to get early snapshots of an earthquake’s intensity before official sensor data arrives. State geologists in Kansas and Oklahoma, states we don't associate with earthquakes, encouraged people to submit their observations to the USGS Did You Feel It service. “We have more people than seismometers,” Oklahoma’s state seismologist Austin Holland told the Stillwater News Press. “A person isn't like a well-calibrated seismometer but if you get enough people you can get well-calibrated data. More people reporting makes the data more reliable.”

The USGS has another crowdsourcing program that makes significant contributions to the National Map. This is the central geospatial database upon which the maps we use every day are based. Almost 1,000 citizen scientists in the National Map Corps have contributed 100,000 map points to update information about public buildings such as schools, government offices, and fire stations.

America’s National Weather Service also relies on reports from a network of more than 290,000 amateur weather monitors and stormspotters. NWS meteorologist Ashley Allen told Florida’s WBAY that “the role our spotters play out in the field are huge.” Weather radar gets less effective the further away a storm is from the tower. Amateur reports give meteorologists the “ground truth” they need to make effective forecasts. 

Protecting elephants from space will cut the finances of human rights violators. Warlords in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have taken to wholesale slaughter of elephant herds. They sell the ivory tusks on the black market to finance their terror campaigns in the DRC and surrounding countries. Satellite imaging company Digital Globe partnered with the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project, to monitor elephant habitats from space. Analysts identify areas where poaching is most likely to happen. That gives officials a better chance of putting the poachers out of business and bringing stability to central Africa.

Volunteers mapped brushfire damage from space days before pros, reported the Australian Broadcasting Company. Digital Globe’s crowdsourcing service, Tomnod, launched the campaign to identify damaged buildings in Australia. Gary Maguire from the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion told the ABC, "Within 12 hours the DCSI received information that these were the buildings the crowd had identified as being destroyed.” This was days faster than damage assessors could achieve safely on the ground

Amateurs in Microgravity

The Zero Robotics programming contest concluded last month but media reports about local participants are still appearing. The contest tasks high school students in the United States and Esa-member nations to program robots on the International Space Station. High school students in Georgia were part of the 3rd place team, the Rockdale Citizen reported. New Jersey’s Pope John XXII Regional High School declared pride in its students who, although eliminated in the semi-finals, got to speak with astronaut Cady Coleman, tour the MIT campus, and interview with Lucas Films for a chance to be in the next Star Wars trailer.

As the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program prepares for its eighth mission, communities across the United States are being chosen to design space research projects. Every year the SSEP helps dozens of communities send student research to the International Space Station. Mississippi’s Daily Leader wrote about the local high school students who will study yeast cells as analogs for human cancer cells. The Austin American Statesman featured local middle school students who will study the effect of microgravity on algae growth.

Making Spaceships

High altitude ballooning plays an important role in developing the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Community college students attended a ballooning workshop at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center last weekend. The students gathered from across the southeastern United States to learn how to make electronic circuitry, build and launch high altitude balloons, and conduct atmospheric research. “We're looking forward to field day,” Drake State’s Karl Henry told WAAY TV, “because we're… going to do some unique things with it.”

High altitude ballooning’s low cost makes it ideal for amateurs. 3Dprint documented one maker's hack to get his camera working in Near Space. His digital camera’s batteries wouldn’t work in the stratosphere’s cold temperatures so he 3D printed a battery emulator to draw power from a central power source.

A crash ended the latest Australian attempt to send high altitude pico balloons around the world. The small balloons produce enough lift to carry solar powered radios and positioning systems. As the balloon passes overhead, ham radio operators receive the signals and send their reports to a website. A balloon released from eastern Australia last December travelled across the Pacific, passed over the Andes, crossed the Atlantic, and was detected by amateur radio operators in South Africa. It disappeared after that, possibly due to bad weather over Madagascar. The latest attempt - flight 32 - disappeared over South America, reported Southgate Amateur Radio News.

Amateur radio enthusiasts have been active participation in space ever since they played a role detecting Sputnik and other early satellites in the 1950’s. The first amateur-built satellite, 1962’s Oscar, was itself designed for ham radio operators to track. That tradition continues. Three educational CubeSats with amateur radio transmitters rode to orbit with the Nasa/Noaa Surface Moisture Active Passive satellite earlier this week,. Iran’s 4th satellite, the Fajr Earth-observation satellite, broadcasts on amateur radio frequencies.

A Florida teen's DIY rocket project placed 2nd in a local science fair. He made his papercraft rocket with construction paper and empty paper towel tubes. Then he jury-rigged a DIY tracking device from a protractor and soda straw to measure the effect of spin rate on the rocket’s maximum altitude.