The Week in Amateur Space Exploration - April 3

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

A St. Louis library loans telescopes to aspiring stargazers, reported the Alton Daily News. The Hayner Public Library System is the latest member of the St. Louis Astronomical Society’s network of 35 local libraries. SLAS members “adopt” each telescope, maintaining the hardware and helping librarians answer questions. The Library Loaner Telescope Program is one reason why the SLAS won the Astronomy Magazine 2014 Out-of-this-World Award for outstanding public programming.

What does it mean for amateurs? Astronomy clubs often have loaner programs, but only for their members. Libraries, on the other hand, have the infrastructure for loaning things to the general public (and getting the things back). By partnering with libraries, astronomy clubs can introduce a wider community to the joys of stargazing. The New Hampshire Astronomical Society’s Library Telescope Program, which has placed 60 telescopes with area libraries, has been copied by astronomy clubs across the United States and around the world.

Former high school dropouts are heading for a moonbuggy race at Nasa. Many of the students at Columbia Basin College High School Academy in Pasco, Washington, once dropped out of high school due to family situations, homelessness, or prison time. Now they are participating in Nasa’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge an engineering design competition held every year at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The students must design a human-powered two-passenger vehicle that can navigate a simulated lunar landscape. The Academy students have the extra challenge of overcoming their personal histories as they learn to succeed. 

What does it mean for amateurs? Inspiring students to study science and math gets called out as a benefit of space exploration so often that its easy to forget how real it is. The Columbia Basin program is an example of the influence space exploration can have in someone’s lives. Society often casts aside kids like these. By designing, building, and racing their own moonbuggies - while Nasa engineers cheer them on - these students gain the confidence to enter college and build a future for themselves. Nasa's challenges does the same for thousands of kids every year.

Exploring Deep Space

The glowing green ribbons are clouds of gas once blasted with radiation from a galaxy's black hole. Credit: Nasa/Esa/Galaxy Zoo team/W. Keel (University of Alabama, USA)

200 citizen scientists working on a side project in the Galaxy Zoo forum found 20 Voorwerpjes. These are glowing clouds of gas floating in intergalactic space. At one point a nearby galaxy’s black hole had blasted the clouds with a beam of high-energy particles. The black hole is now dormant, but the Voorwerpje keeps glowing with the residual energy like embers around a fire. The clouds themselves are the wreckage of galactic collisions. Read the Esa/Hubble press release or the arXiv preprint for more details.

40,000 citizen scientists working on the Snapshot Supernova project discovered five supernovae. Launched by Zooniverse and the BBC’s Stargazing Live, the volunteers quickly produced more than 2,000,000 classifications and exhausted the supply of data. [You can read my article with comments from Chris Lintott for more information].

Amateur astronomer Berto Monard discovered a supernova, SN2015F from his observatory in South Africa. Follow up observations by professional astronomers at the La Silla Observatory in Chile determined that it is a Type 1a supernova - a white dwarf has pulled enough mass from a companion star to trigger a runaway fusion reaction and blast itself apart. These supernovae are so consistent that astronomers use them as markers to measure the distance from Earth to the supernovae’s host galaxies. SN2015F is the latest of Monard’s supernova discoveries - he has found more of the stellar explosions than any other amateur astronomer in South Africa.

Exploring the Solar System

Nasa's new Vesta Trek lets you explore the planetoid in your browser. View it as a map or use the 3D mode. Layers let you add other data from the Dawn spacecraft. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Vesta Trek lets you explore a giant asteroid. Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed the easy-to-use webapp to visualize data from the Dawn mission's three year stay at Vesta. 3D and flat projections let you zoom in on particular features and overlay measurements of mineral content. You can even export data to 3D printers to make your own piece of Vesta. (h/t Astronomy Now)

A Canadian amateur hosts an aurora monitor for a professional research project, the Thompson Citizen reports. Nasa and the Canadian Space Agency created the Themis mission to study the way Earth’s magnetosphere reacts to solar storms. Themis consists of five satellites and an array of 22 ground stations stretching from Alaska across Canada and into Greenland. To keep costs under control, the mission team found volunteers in remote sub-Arctic towns who host the stations. The volunteers provide the electricity and maintain the ground stations.

Aurorasaurus is crowdsourcing space weather, the National Science Foundation reports. By gathering public reports and social media activity, the citizen science project hopes to get a better picture of aurora activity. Ultimately the scientists want to create better forecasting tools for the space weather community. As beautiful as aurorae may be, the solar storms that create them can cause immense economic damage.

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. More than 180 people reported 47 fireballs over the course of the past week. Of course 86 of them sent their reports on April 1 so….

Exploring the Planet Earth

This is my favorite for the finals in Nasa's Earth Observatory Tournament Earth (link) It shows a fault line in the hills of China's Xinjiang province. Credit: USGS/Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen

Last week Digital Globe announced that it had opened its archive of satellite images to the University of Minnesota and the University of California San Diego. Faculty and students at the university will be free to use the images for research and other projects. More articles (UMN, UCSD) appeared this week describing how the universities will get the images in the hands of their campus communities.

Public reports of earthquakes play an essential role in emergency response as well as long-term seismic research. The US Geological Survey Did You Feel It site received public reports of 34 earthquakes around the world. The most reported quakes include: San Francisco (Magnitude 3.6, 3289 reports), Missouri (M3.6, 739 reports), San Francisco (M2.6, 166 reports), and Texas (M2.7, 155 reports). The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre received public reports of 10 earthquakes around the world. A magnitude 4.7 earthquake in Greece generated 9 reports.

Amateurs in Microgravity

The Space Station National Design Challenge will launch teenagers’ science experiments to the International Space Station. A joint effort of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis) and the Boy Scouts of America, it will help teams of boys and girls develop experiment designs and compete for a chance to send their experiment into orbit. Casis reserved three places on a space station resupply launch in 2016 for the contest’s pilot project in Chicago.

Schools around the world are helping scientists study ants in space. Stanford University scientists sent pavement ants to the International Space Station last year in order to study the effect microgravity has on the ants’ search tactics. Different ant species use different tactics but there are so many species of ants - more than 14,000 of them - that the researchers can’t study all of them. "We hope that kids around the world will try this same experiment with all of the many thousands of species of ants that have never been studied," lead scientist  Deborah Gordon told the BBC. She created a classroom project that lets schools repeat her experiment with their own colony of local ants. The students can compare their results to those of other students around the world at the Ant Colony Search crowdsourcing site. Dr. Gordon hopes the students' work will create a database of ant search tactics that scientists can draw upon for their research.

Making Spaceships

Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot Nasa is testing on the International Space Station. Nasa may let the public program the Robonaut as part of the Space Robotics Challenge. MWA-HA-HA-HA! Credit: Kris Kehe


Nasa wants public feedback on its upcoming Space Robotics Challenge. The space agency thinks the public could help make space robots more autonomous. The proposed Space Robotics Challenge will let teams write code that will control the Robonauts on the International Space Station.

Students at Ohio’s Northview High School are preparing to launch a rocket, reports the Toledo Blade. The students placed in the top 25 of last year’s Team America Rocketry Contest. Now they have been invited to take part in the Small Satellites for Secondary Schools program. They will launch a rocket over the Nevada desert this summer. Instruments the students design will record data on atmospheric conditions during the flight.

The rocket team at Oregon North Medford High School is preparing for this year’s Team America Rocketry Contest, the Mail Tribune reports. The students had to build the entire rocket - except the motor - from scratch.

Imaging Resource interviewed launch photographer Ben Cooper. Cameras and lenses are as good as they can get. Lenses can get pitted by high-speed dirt. Tripod legs can get severed by flying debris. Follow the link for some amazing pictures of rockets clearing the tower.

The Edmonton Journal re-published a 1976 article about Canaroc - Canada’s first model rocket manufacturer.

If you like what you’ve read, why not make a contribution of your own? Give me feedback on the articles you’ve read, suggest amateur projects that deserve promotion, or chip in to the tip jar. Every little bit helps.