The Week in Amateur Space Exploration - March 7

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

Darlene Cavalier spoke with ASU News about her passion for citizen science. In the interview Cavalier describes how her early frustration that people without a science degree couldn’t take part in science led her to found Science Cheerleaders and the Scistarter website. She recently joined Arizona State University’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science to build its citizen science programs. 

What does this mean for amateurs? The scientific community is bringing more innovation and discipline to the practice of citizen science. Last month scientists and other organizers of citizen science projects attended the inaugural conference of the Citizen Science Alliance (Cavalier is a board member). Efforts like these will create more opportunities for the public to play active roles in scientific research and help produce science that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.  

Two news stories illustrate the nature of today’s amateur astronomy community. The News Press spoke with Joe Senich about his role in an astronomy group on Facebook.  More than 19,000 members around the world join Telescope Addicts to share a common passion for astronomy. As an administrator, Senich helps ensure that people behaves themselves, keeping the community a welcoming place for experts and novices alike. The Akron Beacon Journal featured Chris Stephan, an amateur astronomer and telescope retailer. Stephan built a thriving business on Etsy selling antique telescopes and other scientific instruments. His customer base is now large enough to support a physical storefront, Classical Science, where he can also sell modern scientific instruments to amateurs. 

What does this mean for amateurs? The challenge for amateurs has always been finding people like themselves. Even in a large city the few weather-spotters, stargazers, or tinkerers can have a hard time finding each other. The Internet breaks down those barriers to create virtual communities that span the world. The last telescope store in Ohio closed years ago, but Chris Stephan’s online presence gives him the base upon which to build his physical storefront. And while astronomy clubs have a longstanding tradition, they only meet a few times a month. The Telescope Addicts, on the other hand, can drop into the group any time they’re on Facebook.

Exploring Deep Space

Scientists with the crowdsourced Radio Galaxy Zoo project submitted their first academic paper. The project enlists thousands of citizen scientists around the world to match images of distant galaxies from radio telescopes and infrared telescopes. The paper analyses the project’s first year and compares the amateur contribution favorably to expert anaysis.

Adopt-a-star is a non-profit that raises money for stellar seismology research. Processes deep within a star cause it to grow and shrink. Astronomers measure these pulsations to study the star's internal structure much like geologists use earthquakes to study our planet's internal structure. The largest source of stellar seismology data happens to be Nasa's Kepler planet-hunting mission, but the space agency cancelled its support of the research to save money. European researchers cut a deal to access the data, but as a foreign-led research program its scientists can't get funding from the US government. A young American scientist, Travis Metcalfe, posted an arXiv preprint that explains how Adopt-a-Star has raised $100,000 to subsidize the work of scientists around the world.

Exploring the Solar System

Gale Crater as seen by the Mars Express Visual Monitoring Camera. Credit: ESA - European Space AgencyCC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Classrooms and youth groups can take pictures of Mars… from Mars. The VMC Imaging Campaign will get eight opportunities to use the Visual Monitoring Camera on the Mars Express orbiter. Schools and informal education groups can apply for one of those opportunities - the more science-based the request, the better the odds of getting picked. The European Space Agency opened the contest to groups in Esa member-states, the European Union, Canada, the United States, Argentina, and Australia.’s article “Mysterious Mars Plume Discovery is Amateur Astronomy at its Best” finally takes a closer look at the amateurs themselves and the roles they played in the discovery and follow-up observations. The media covered the “mystery mars plume” extensively over the past few weeks. While the headlines played up the man-bites-dog aspect of the amateur discovery, most of the articles rehashed the press release or focused on the various scientific explanation for the high-altitude clouds. 

Nasa has funded research based on crowdsourced analysis of Mars. Thousands of people around the world have contributed to Planet Four, a project that studies carbon dioxide ice formations on the red planet. The new study will compare Planet Four’s maps of wind direction to predictions from the latest Mars climate models.

Kenya Engineer wrote about the role of space in the development of African nations. It cited Africa2Moon, a crowdfunded effort to send an African robot to the Moon, as an example of programs that will help reverse African nations’ brain drain.

The Space Rocks crowdfunding campaign will support Australian meteorite research. The Australian government has cut funding for astronomy and other basic science research over the past few years. Deprived of the grants to support their research, young scientists turned to the Australian crowdfunding service Pozible for help. The A$4,000 they hoped to raise would keep them on a shoestring budget, but it would be enough to search for meteorites in the Nullarbor Desert and then analyse the rocks in the lab. ABC News reported on the overwhelming response the young scientists have received. With 8 days to go, the project has raised more than A$11,000.

Amateur astronomers join professional scientists to search for the meteorites, reports the ABC. Fragments of a fireball that streaked above Victoria probably survived to reach the ground as meteorites. Quick recovery reduces the contamination from Earth’s environment and lets scientists study the Solar System without billion dollar space missions.

Earth, space, and Sun from a zero2infinity stratospheric test flight. Credit: zero2infinity

An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign will film a solar eclipse from the edge of space. The project’s team work at Zero2infinity, the Spanish company that plans to send tourists and satellites into the stratosphere in high-altitude balloons. The eclipse projects will use a ring of GoPro cameras to create a 360-degree view of the eclipse as it passes over the Arctic island of Svalbard. A fourth of the way through, the campaign has raised less than 15% of its €25,000 goal.

Universe Today’s Bob King reported on amateur efforts to track the comet’s remains. The sungrazing comet C/2015 D1 SOHO barely survived its encounter with the Sun. One amateur found the broken up comet in images from Nasa’s Soho space observatory. Other amateurs made follow up observations and analyzed trajectories to confirm the discovery.

Exploring the Planet Earth

Earth scientists increasingly turn to crowdsourcing to better understand our dynamic planet and improve weather forecasts and earthquake warnings. Noaa’s Madis database hoovers up data from public and private weather networks to feed into its weather forecasting supercomputers. The fastest growing contributor to Madis is CWOP, the Citizen Weather Observing Program. Weather enthusiasts across the United States (and around the world) upload data from their personal weather stations to the CWOP which flows the data to Noaa.

Noaa enlists more than 200,000 volunteers in its Skywarn storm spotting network to see what’s happening in areas weather radar can’t reach. In advance of a citizen training session, National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones told the Clovis News Journal that the NWS depends “almost exclusively on volunteers for reporting snowfall.” Noaa also collects rain and snow measurements from the Cocorahs network to better understand precipitation, flood, and drought. Cocorahs founder Nolan Doeskin talked about citizen weather monitoring with the Voice of America. Since weather varies over such short distances, he explained, citizens provide ground truth that radar and satellites can’t detect.

The American Geophysical Union explained how seismologists crowdsource earthquake observations. Traffic on Twitter and websites spikes within seconds of an earthquake. Mapping that traffic gives seismologists in the United States and Europe a snapshot of an earthquake’s intensity and extent before data from sophisticated seismic sensors can be analysed.

The independent Google Earth Blog compared the latest high resolution images from Digital Globe to the existing images in Google Earth. Digital Globe’s latest satellites capture detail as small as 30cm across - resolutions once limited to secret surveillance satellites. The only time Google Earth’s images do better than Digital Globe’s is when they were captured by low-flying airplanes.

Amateurs in Microgravity

Subaru USA renewed its support for of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Sometimes communities fall short raising the $30,000 it costs to develop and fly student microgravity experiments. Subaru’s $50,000 grant helps bridge the gap so the students get to send their research to the International Space Station. 

The SSEP’s 7th mission will ride a SpaceX Dragon into orbit this summer. Designated Odyssey after the Apollo 13 Command Module, it will carry 27 student experiments to the International Space Station. Local officials in New Jersey honored the middle school students at the Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School whose experiment will investigate the effect of microgravity on evaporation. In a surprising turn Colorado fifth graders's ladybug experiment was tapped to go into space ahead of proposals by high school students.

The SSEP’s 8th mission, Kitty Hawk, will go into space this fall. Canada’s Ryerson University will team undergraduate students and local high school students together to develop microgravity research experiments.

Earlier this year Nasa announced Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (acronymified Micro-g NExT), a contest that lets undergraduates design tools for astronauts on a future asteroid mission. Teams will visit Nasa’s Johnson Space Center to watch astronauts test their designs in the Neutral Buoyancy Tank. Idaho’s KTVB featured the Boise State University team that designed a “float grabber” astronauts could use to collect loose rocks from an asteroid’s surface.

Mixing cocktails with space travel isn’t a good idea unless it’s done for science. The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project wants to crowdfund a design for a 3D printed cocktail glass that will work in space. The developers at Cosmic Lifestyles have designed a vessel shaped like a martini glass that uses surface tension to keep liquid from floating away. Their Kickstarter project will raise money for ground-based and aircraft-based microgravity tests. A stretch goal will let them print the cocktail glass on the International Space Station’s 3D printer.

Making Spaceships

The Aerospace Industry Association kicked off the 2015 rocketry season when it announced this year’s Team America Rocketry Challenge. More than 4,000 middle and high school students across the United States compete to launch eggs on homemade rockets 800 feet in the air and return them safely to the Earth. The top 100 teams from regional contests will attend the finals in Virginia this May to compete for $60,000 in scholarships and prizes. The first place finishers will travel to the Paris International Airshow to compete against French and British rocketeers in the International Rocketry Challenge. 

The Wilton Bulletin featured New Jersey teens who controlled robots on the International Space Station. They were part of the 2nd place team in this year's Zero Robotics tournament. Working with teens in North Carolina and Greece, the teens programmed the robots to navigate a virtual obstacle course in the space station as astronauts looked on.