The Week in Amateur Space Exploration

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. If you like this recap, please consider supporting Small Steps to Space.

I posted a couple of articles to Small Steps to Space:

Enabling Amateur Space Exploration

Professional astronomer Daniel Caton wrote an op-ed in the News and Observer about the way technology and declining science budgets have pulled astronomers away from the night sky. Internet-connected observatories in distant mountaintop locations pour rivers of data into astronomical archives. Astronomers no longer need to attend observing sessions. Increasingly they don’t even need to make original observations as they mine the archives. Caton regrets the connection modern astronomers have lost with the instruments they use and the starry skies they observe.

What does it mean for amateurs? These same trends create opportunities for amateurs to take part in astronomical research. Internet-connected automatic observatories lets amateurs use much larger telescopes in dark sky locations than they could afford on their own. Crowdsourced citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo and Asteroid Mappers wouldn’t exist without the open archives. And as professional astronomers increasingly shift to data mining and other numerically-intensive research, they leave observations of individual objects - from variable stars to asteroids - to amateurs.

Several stories appeared about astronomy in primary and secondary school education. The University of Washington’s student newspaper ran an op-ed calling astronomy an essential high school class. Education Week wrote that UCLA exoplanet scientist and NSF Fellow Aomawa Shields engages girls in astronomy through art and drama. Her non-profit Rising Star Girls conducts several STEM outreach programs. The Sharples School is building an £18,000 rooftop observatory to support its GCSE Astronomy course, wrote the Bolton News.

What does it mean for amateurs? Astronomy is a great fit for schools. Astronomy is interesting: kids have an almost instinctive interest in space which make it relatively easy for teachers to get them engaged. Astronomy scales: activities can focus on the aesthetic qualities of astronomical pictures or can involve advanced math and physics. Astronomy has support: from space agencies to universities to local amateurs, teachers have a deep network of support that they can call on to help bring astronomy into the classroom.

Other headlines related to amateur space exploration

Exploring Deep Space

The faint smudge in the right hand image is a supernova in a distant galaxy - the first discovery by crowdsourced citizen science project Snapshot Supernova. Credit: ANU/Skymapper Southern Sky Survey/Snapshot Supernova

The Zooniverse and BBC’s Stargazing Live launched a new crowdsourced citizen science project. Snapshot Supernova asks the public to help spot exploding stars in images taken by an Australian observatory. Within hours the volunteers spotted their first supernova. Within days more than 34,000 people contributed over 1.5 million classifications. [Read my article which includes comments from Chris Lintott]

Benefunder crowdsources from the rich for science. Less than 3% of the $240 billion US philanthropists give every year goes to scientific research, so Benefunder works with wealthy Americans to channel their giving towards the science “causes” of their choice, including several astrophysics projects.

Exploring the Solar System

The Youtubes were full of solar goodness this week. A solar storm erupted from the Sun's surface and slammed into Earth's atmosphere. Then on Friday a total solar eclipse passed over Britain and northern Europe. Timelapse of aurora and the Milky Way over Dunedin, New Zealand:

Astrophotographer Thierry Lagault only caught a partial eclipse in Spain, but from that vantage point he saw the International Space Station pass in front of the eclipse in progress:

Cosmoquest announced that its Planet Mappers: Mercury now works on mobile phones. Now you can map Mercury’s craters from anywhere on Earth.

Amateur asteroid hunters got a boost from Nasa when it released Asteroid Data Hunter. In a series of images taken through a telescope the position of an asteroid will change as it orbits the Sun. Professional astronomers - and many amateurs - use software to find the subtle changes. Volunteer programmers at the Topcoder crowdsourcing site improved the software's performance 15%. Nasa released the software to the public so amateur astronomers can benefit from their work.

Spartan Crater discovered by Arizona teenager Cody Rislund. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The Payson Roundup’s article describes a teenager's five year discovery of Spartan Crater on Mars. Arizona teen Cody Rislund first spotted the smudge in a picture of Mars when as a seventh grader he took part in the Mars Student Imaging Project. Figuring out what it was required pictures at much higher resolutions. Fortunately the University of Arizona’s HiWish program lets the public request pictures of Mars taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRise camera. Five years later that request finally made it to the front of the line. Rislund found a fresh impact crater where the dark smudge used to be and got to name his discovery.

South African media group IOL reported on an attempt to launch Africa’s first mission to the Moon. Africa2Moon has solicited research proposals from the African scientific community that include educational and public outreach benefits. Its crowdfunding effort, however, has only raised 300,000 rand - about $25,000.

A map of the 277 reports of last Sunday's fireball over Europe. Credit: American Meteor Society

The American Meteor Society received reports of more than 40 meteor events around the world. The biggest event, a Sunday evening fireball over Europe, yielded 277 reports from Germany and neighboring countries. One lucky Swiss driver caught this dashcam video:

Exploring the Planet Earth

Fast Company reports on the space detective agencies who use remote sensing satellites to catch environmental criminals. High resolution cameras, search and rescue tracking systems, and other instruments on the growing fleet of satellites orbiting Earth have long served governments and businesses. Now non-profits advocacy groups are taking advantage of these resources to make the world a better place by monitoring deforestation, illegal fishing, oil pollution, and other environmental crimes. 

Students at Rowland Hall Middle School studied the inversion layer above Utah from space reports KSL TV. The kids programmed an Ardusat educational satellite already orbiting the planet. KSL’s report explains how Utah-based Ardusat fosters software and STEM skills using its space hardware.

The DigitalGlobe Foundation gave two universities full access to its database of satellite images as part of an experiment in academic remote sensing. The University of California San Diego is already planning a series of hackathons and grants to support student and faculty applications. The University of Minnesota is also part of the pilot program which will determine how DigitalGlobe makes remote sensing data available to universities around the world.

Tomnod launched an emergency crowdsourcing campaign to map damage on the islands of Vanuatu. It also wrote a blog post describing how volunteer mappers helped fight elephant poaching in Africa.

Noaa’s National Geodetic Survey is crowdsourcing smartphone GPS data to refine its maps of the national benchmarks.

National Geographic reported on citizen explorers of the mesosphere. Project Possum - the acronymified Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere project - offers a four-day course at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to train citizens to conduct atmospheric research during suborbital rocketplane flights. The mesosphere is not very well understood since balloons can’t reach it and rockets cost a million dollars each.

A Detroit-area meteorologist with America’s National Weather Service explained to Hometown Life how weather radar detects rotation in clouds but can’t tell whether it’s a tornado. Volunteer storm spotters in the NWS’ Skywarn program provide on-the-ground reports that produce better storm warnings. In North Carolina the Cocorahs March Madness recruiting drive is in full swing. A meteorologist explained to Farm and Ranch Guide how volunteer precipitation reports are used for everything from daily weather reports to water resource planning to crop yield assessments.

Public reports of earthquakes play an essential role in emergency response as well as long-term seismic research. The US Geological Survey received public reports of more than 20 earthquakes around the world. More than 400 people along the Outer Banks reported a quake, but seismic sensors did not detect anything. The USGS believes it was a sonic boom. Speculation focuses on offshore military exercises. The most reported quakes include: Virginia (Magnitude 2.3, 294 reports) and Northern California (M3.8, 109 reports). The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre received public reports of 15 earthquakes around the world. The most reported quakes include: Romania (M4.5, 49 reports) and Algeria (M3.9, 30 reports).

Amateurs in Microgravity

Minnesota teens designed an experiment to study frog embryos in microgravity, the Duluth News Tribune reported. Their experiment will ride into space this summer as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program’s seventh mission to the International Space Station.

Making Spaceships

Hawaiian News Now wrote about high school students' test of their moondust experiment at a lunar analog site. The research is based on technology developed at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center. It uses electric fields to repel the sharp, fine-grained particles found in the lunar regolith. Apollo astronauts struggled as the dust gummed up machinery and abraded their spacesuits. The students at ‘Iolani School and Kealakehe High School may get a chance to test their technology on the Moon when competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize send robots to the Moon. Hawaii News Now followed the students to a research site where the volcanic landscape is similar to the lunar surface.

Two separate reports featured high schools taking part in Hunch, High School Students United With Nasa to Create Hardware (figure that acronym out). Students at Michigan’s Romeo Engineering and Technology Center demonstrated their work to US Representative Candice Miller. They are just starting to learn how to build space station parts to Nasa’s strict requirements. The Reading Eagle spoke with Nasa’s liaison John Keck who explained how the students at Reading-Muhlenberg Career & Technology Center will build valuable skills just as many area machinists are retiring. 

Finalists in the European CanSat competition will meet in Portugal this spring to launch soda can-sized instrument packages on high performance rockets. Esero UK announced that St Paul’s School in London will represent Britain in Lisbon.

Near space balloon flights into the stratosphere are the most accessible introductions to space exploration. Three educational flights flew over Britain and the United States last week. University of Birmingham students created the Gemini Stratosphere Balloon Project to carry six experiments into stratosphere. The Gazette featured the Colorado Spring middle school students who sent 50 Pongsats into the stratosphere on an Edge of Space Sciences balloon flight. Arizona sixth graders flew their own mission to near space with support from Arizona Near Space Research - check out their video:

Osaka Prefecture University has developed a “user-friendly” CubeSat kit. The $25,000 kit will let universities and hobbyists build their own basic satellite. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will provide free launches for select education-centric projects that use the kits, the Japan News reports.