The Week in Amateur Space Exploration - March 27

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



Chicks in Space have crowdfunded a spinning greenhouse for the International Space Station. The teenage sisters developed their own microgravity science program over the past six years. Their Garden of Eton project aims to produce stronger plants by growing them in a 4"x4"x4" centrifuge. For more details, read my interview with the Bulawa sisters. [Disclosure: I donated to their campaign]

What does it mean for amateurs? If your kids plan to study science or engineering in university, they will be competing against students who have done more than get good grades. Thousands of teenagers do research in space every year. Adia, Lilly, and MaryAnn took part in every Nasa stem-education program they could, sending projects into the stratosphere and conducting experiments at Nasa drop towers. Thanks to the capabilities of NanoRacks' facilities on the space station - and frequent launches from SpaceX - doing research in space is easier than ever. 

Arizona State University announced that SciStarter will loan technology to citizen scientists. The lending library will help expand the public’s participation in science. Its first offering will be a balloon mapping kit from Public Lab. Aerial and satellite photography is a useful, but expensive, tool for monitoring the environment. The kit lets citizen scientists float a camera hundreds of meters in the air. Communities in the southern US used the kit to monitor environmental damage from the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

What does it mean for amateurs? One of Public Labs’s original tools is a desktop spectrometer kit (which raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter). Tools like these place science in the public’s hands and introduces them to the potential for larger scale projects. The desktop spectrometer can lead people to make astronomical observations and explore the world of astro-spectroscopy. The balloon kit can lead to more ambitious near space flights or to the world of geosciences.

Exploring Deep Space

Nasa's Sofia is an infrared observatory cleverly disguised as a Boeing 747. The Universe will never see it coming! Credit: Nasa/Jeff Doughty

Nasa picked two Massachusetts middle school teachers to become Sofia Ambassadors. They will fly on the space agency’s airborne observatory where they will make infrared observations of galaxies and other deep space objects. Every year the Sofia Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program lets a dozen educators conduct original research.

Galaxy Zoo continues to produce science thanks to the world’s citizen scientists. Crowdsourced reports of Voorwerpjes yielded a new study of these intergalactic gas clouds. You can read their arXiv preprint for full details. Another blog post explained how the project’s massive dataset lets Galaxy Zoo astronomers study the evolution of barred spiral galaxies.

An MIT scientist asked the American Association of Variable Star Observers for help studying a star's accretion disk. The star, RW Aur A, is circled by a disk of rocks and dust that may eventually form planets. It is also circled by a companion star. Scientists believe the companion star has disrupted the accretion disk. They will make observations with Nasa’s Chandra x-ray telescope, but they need as many ground-based observations as possible to place the space-based observations in context.

Exploring the Solar System

Carbon dioxide ice blankets Mars during the winter. Dust clouds puff out of the ice during the spring thaw to form these dark "fans". Once the ice sublimates away the dust blends into the Martian surface and the fans disappear. Planet Four crowdsources maps of these dust fans to study Martian wind patterns. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Planet Four's scientists explained how clustering analysis combines citizen scientists’ observations to map dust fans on the Martian surface. A transient feature of the Martian spring, the fans will let scientists study wind patterns on Mars. 

Scientists from Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are bringing Mars to kids in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Their $30,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Mars Academy, has raised over $12,000 so far.

More stories are appearing following the solar eclipse over Britain. Amateur photographer Chris Hillcox tried to catch the eclipse from the stratosphere. He released a weather balloon that carried a camera 30 kilometers above the Welsh countryside. The four GoPro cameras couldn’t compensate for the Sun’s intense light (even during the eclipse) and the unstable motion of the balloon.

The next total eclipse in the United States is in two years. The Citizen CATE project will enlist amateur astronomers’ help to create a 90-minute observation of the eclipse. They hope to uncover new insights into the physics of the solar corona. Members of the science team tested a prototype telescope by observing the British eclipsed from the Faroe Islands.

Pittsburgh’s Post Gazette interviewed a local community college professor who uses Apollo-era Moon rocks to teach astronomy and physics. Nasa’s Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office manages the space agency’s lunar and meteorite samples. The Curation Office loans samples to educators at all levels to enhance science education. But with great access comes great responsibility. Patrick Huth explains to the Post-Gazette how Nasa expects him to care for these one-of-a-kind pieces of history.

The American Meteor Society and the International Meteor Organization let the public report sightings of fireballs - very bright meteors. The public reports lets the organizations calculate the fireball’s trajectory. That lets them backtrack the meteor to learn its origin in the Solar System. It also lets them forecast where any surviving fragments may have landed as meteorites. Of the 38 fireballs spotted in the past week, only a meteor over Minnesota generated more than a dozen reports. A dashcam did catch one fireball over Canada’s Prince Edwards Island (Journal Pioneer).

Exploring the Planet Earth

These are before-and-after shots of Vanuatu's Erromango island taken from the Landsat 8 remote sensing satellite. The island, once a vibrant green (left), became a dull brownish-green (right) after the cyclone Pam flattened the island's trees. Source: Nasa Earth Observatory Image Credit: USGS

ABC showed the devastation of Vanuatu in high resolution before-and-after images taken by DigitalGlobe satellites. It’s this kind of comparison that Tomnod used to crowdsource maps of Typhoon Pam’s destruction. Within nine days almost 18,000 people around the world reviewed 17,000 square kilometers of satellite images.

The Western Morning News wrote about how the MetOffice relies on both supercomputers and citizen scientists to forecast Britain’s weather. Amateur weather-watchers can submit data from personal weather stations to the MetOffice’s Weather Observation Website

The Cocorahs recruiting drive is in its final week and North Carolina is in the lead, reports the North Carolina Sea Grant. The blog post explains the role that the volunteer weather monitoring network plays in forecasting and emergency response. Two members of Cocorahs explained why they monitor the weather in a North Carolina State Climate Office blog post.

The White House joined Cocorahs by installing a rain guage during the White House Science Fair, the Washington Post reported. The Weather Underground also covered the event.

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 37 earthquakes around the world. The most reported quakes include: San Francisco (Magnitude 2.9, 1001 reports), Illinois (M2.9, 590 reports), and Central California (M3.6, 157 reports). The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre received public reports of 20 earthquakes around the world. Besides the US quakes, the EMSC's most-reported quakes include: Taiwan (Magnitude 5.8, 6 reports), Bosnia and Herzegovina (M3.3, 6 reports), and Chile (M6.4, 6 reports).

Amateurs in Microgravity

The SSEP opened registration for its ninth mission to the ISS. Experiments will go to the space station in early 2016.

SSEP is open to U.S. schools and school districts serving grade 5 through 12 students, 2- and 4-year colleges and universities, informal science education organizations, and internationally through the Center’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education.

More than 46,000 students have taken part in SSEP’s space program, and sent more than 113 experiments to the space station.

CBS featured a Denver high school making its own zero-g plant growth experiment. The students are part of Nasa’s Hunch program. In addition to making parts for the International Space Station, they have designed a centrifuge-based plant growth experiment. Nasa engineers advised the students and tested the centrifuge on parabolic aircraft flights.

Another student centrifuge won first place at a 3D printing contest. The Extreme Redesign Challenge tasked students with improving the design of existing technology. The winning design came from a New Jersey student who developed a centrifugal scale for his school’s Nasa Hunch program. The scale uses centrifugal force to measure the mass of objects.

Texas teens represented the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program at the White House Science Fair. The four students from San Antonio’s Hobby Middle School watched their microgravity research project go up in flames when the Antares launch vehicle exploded on the launch pad last October. They quickly re-built their experiment and SpaceX delivered it to the International Space Station earlier this year. The students presented the results of their research into crystal growth in microgravity. 

At the other end of the fundraising scale, Wapato High School has to raise $7000 for its microgravity R&D program. The school is part of Nasa’s Hunch program which enlists schools to build parts for the International Space Station. The funds will let the students travel from Washington to the Johnson Space Center where they will test their space cooler on a zero-g flight.

You can get the zero-g experience yourself - just buy a ticket. Novespace operates parabolic aircraft flights for the French and German space agencies as well as for the European Space Agency. FlightGlobal reported that the recently refurbished Airbus A310 will give researchers more room to conduct their experiments. In addition, Novespace will conduct six space tourist flights each year. The €6,000 tickets aren’t cheap, but for many it’s the closest they’ll get to being in space. Think of it as the ultimate roller coaster ride

Making Spaceships

Scotland’s PocketQube Shop unveiled a “lite” version of its PocketQube kit. It lets university and secondary schools build a barebones version of its small satellite within the budget limits of small educational grants. The $3499 price keeps it under the typical $5000 cap.

The RocketStar crowdfunding campaign gives people around the world a chance to support rocket science. The company was founded by a Wall Street commodities trader who decided to turn his wealth to good. He hired a team of New York-area scientists and engineers to develop an aerospike rocket engine. These are more efficient than the traditional bell-shaped rocket nozzles. It’s hard to tell why RocketStar needs crowdfunding to do their work, but they say the $250,000 Indiegogo campaign will let them develop a prototype aerospike.

A team of teenage rocketeers from the US Virgin Islands attended the White House Science Fair. They represented the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the annual contest that lets students across the country compete for scholarships by launching rockets.

Ohio’s St Vincent St Mary High School’s rocket team is designing a rocket for Nasa, reports. After doing well in the Team America Rocketry Contest, the school got an invitation from the space agency to participate in the Nasa Student Launch program. Right now the students are working on a half-scale version of the 7-foot rocket that they will launch at the Nevada desert.

A British school celebrated the solar eclipse with a near space balloon flight. Darwen Aldridge Community Academy’s year 7 and 8 students flew a near space balloon 34 kilometers above the Lancashire countryside, capturing video and images from the edge of space. Video and details are at the Lancashire Telegraph.

Other Amateur Space News

These are stories that don’t fit into neat categories - or that I can’t summarize without copying the entire article.