Amateur Space Weekly - June 28

Most people don't realize that they can do more than read about space exploration. Amateurs of all ages take part in astronomy projects, microgravity research, and more. This is my weekly recap of news about amateur space projects.

Today's explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle will impact the professional space industry, but it also impacts amateur space explorers. The explosion destroyed dozens of primary and secondary school research projects.

Organizations like Nasa's Hunch project, the Student Spaceflight Experiment Project, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space encourage students to pursue careers in science and engineering by subsidizing the cost of sending their research to the International Space Station. 

Michael Suffredini, Manager of Nasa's Space Station Program Office, addressed the student researchers in a post-accident press briefing (beginning at 20:20):

These young people are learning a valuable lesson… that you have setbacks but they can be recovered from. You have to keep trying…. It’s what you do after you’ve had to face adversity that really defines what you’re going to be able to do…. We’ll help them get back online. We’ll help them get their hardware built again. And we’ll get them to orbit, we’ll do their experiments, and hopefully this will be a positive lesson for them in the end.

Amateurs in Microgravity

Hunch is the High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware project. It enlists high schools with modern vocational education programs to build hardware for the International Space Station. As schools gain experience, the Hunch program helps the students develop their own microgravity research programs. The students get to test their experiments on the space agency’s “vomit comet” zerog aircraft before sending their research to the space station. Media featured three schools this week:

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program enlists entire communities into space research. Students in a school or school district follow a peer-review proposal process similar to that professional scientists use to get their research on the space station. Since 2010, almost 46,000 students have taken part in SSEP projects. The seventh mission to the space station was lost in today’s SpaceX accident. Students are developing proposals for the eighth mission right now for launch this Fall.

  • Oregon’s Grant Union Junior/Senior High School sent their protein-folding experiment on Mission 7. (Blue Mountain Eagle)
  • California’s Damien High School sent tardigrades, also known as water bears, on Mission 7. (Daily Bulletin and Damien HS press release)
  • Students at California’s Petaluma High School sent their algae-growth experiment on Mission 7. (Petaluma 360)
  • Middle school students at California’s Vista Magnet School learned that their plant root growth experiment will be part of Mission 8. (San Diego Union Tribune)

Observing the Planet Earth

A strange kind of lightning forms in the skies above thunderstorms. A spark forms 50 miles in the air and then expands upwards and downwards. These sprites were long-rumored but never recorded until 1989. Now modern digital cameras let anyone capture images of sprites and their variants - elves, gnomes, pixies, and trolls. News OK published an interview with meteorologist Walt Lyons who takes pictures of sprites from his balcony. Lyons explains what little is known about sprites and what it takes to take pictures.

The Palm Beach Post wrote about a recent Skywarn training class. America’s National Weather Service relies on a 290,000 member network of volunteer storm spotters to understand what’s happening during severe weather. Official weather stations are separated by hundreds of miles. Weather radar can’t see what’s happening near the ground. Skywarn members use radio, mobile phones, and social media to document rain, snow, hail, and flooding.

Amateur Astronomy

Australian high school students won a science award for their variable star research. They used iTelescope’s online telescope service to collect data which they combined with data from the American Association of Variable Star Observers database. Their analysis earned them a first prize at a local science fair. You can download a copy of their research from the iTelescope website.

The United Arab Emirates has made a lot of news recently for its accelerating investments in space exploration. The Gulf News reports on a new astronomy center opening in Sharjah. It will offer public, education, and research programs to enhance Emirati astronomy. Later this year the center will open an academic satellite laboratory where university students will build their own spacecraft.

Vanderbilt University hosted a conference on diversity in professional astronomy. Attendees at Inclusive Astronomy 2015 discussed ways to make astronomy careers more attractive to minorities, women and LGBT’s, The Tennessean reported. Astrophysicist Melanie Rawls wrote about her experience at the conference for the Planetary Society.

A new observatory will open in Maryland thanks to amateur astronomers' efforts. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Howard Astronomical League has refurbished an 80 year old 12” telescope and built an public observatory to support their public outreach programs.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $1.3 million grant to study the benefits of astronomy education in middle schools. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, and the Smithsonian Institute will study the impact of astronomy on students’ spatial thinking skills. (Penn State press release)

Other Amateur Space News:


Space Makers

Life isn’t easy for Australia’s DIY satellite makers. IT professional Stuart McAndrew has been working on the OzCube-1 satellite for several years. Based on the PocketQub standard, the satellite measures 5 centimeters on a side. That makes it relatively inexpensive to build - one supplier estimates $17,000 total hardware cost. But then Australians must test and certify their satellite (another $10,000) before paying for a rocket ride into space (at least $35,000 more). While the Australian government offers subsidies to academic projects, amateur satellite makers must pay the same rates as businesses. McAndrew launched a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign to get his satellite into orbit. Although he got some media coverage from the Australian Broadcasting Company (radio and online), donations have only reached $300.

Space covered Mason Peck's talk about DIY satellites. Peck, a former Nasa Chief Technologist, is a professor at Cornell University where he supervises the Space Systems Design Studio, home to innovative satellite projects like the crowdfunded KickSat satellite-on-a-chip project.

Nasa's Terrier-improved Orion sounding rocket flies on a suborbital trajectory, exposing experiments to both microgravity and the space environment at much lower cost than an orbital space launch. Credit: Nasa Wallops Optical Lab

Nasa launched undergraduate research experiments 71 miles to the edge of space on a Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket. Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium sponsors a scaled up version of the CanSat competition for American undergraduate students. The RockOn Workshop teaches students how to design experiments for launch on the space agency’s suborbital rockets through the RockSat-C and RockSat-X programs.

RCS Engineering is the team of teenage model rocketeers who outflew British and French rocket teams at the Paris Air Show June 19. Local media covered their return home last week. TV station WAAY posted pictures of the team’s arrival at the local airport while the Franklin Times covered the community response from school officials to Russelville, Alabama’s mayor and city council.

A New Jersey high school science teacher used rocketry to end her astronomy class with a bang, Tapinto West Essex reports. After a semester studying space and space exploration missions, her students built models of their favorite spacecraft around 2-liter bottles. A little water and air pressure - plus some math and physics - turned their work into water rockets.

The European CanSat Competition is underway this weekend in Lisbon, Portugal. The contest fosters secondary school science and engineering education among the European Space Agency’s member states. Student teams compete in national contests to design CanSats - model satellites the size of a soda can - that are then launched 1,000 meters into the air. The CanSat must land within a specified time while collecting data and protecting its passenger - a raw egg. British and Austrian teams won the advanced and beginners categories, respectively.

Near Space Makers

Marsballoon is a British education project that sends primary and secondary school science projects into the stratosphere on high altitude balloons. Informally called Near Space, the atmospheric and radiation conditions are the closest Earthly analog to the Martian environment. The project invites schools to create experiments that may help future Mars explorers. Projects flown on last year’s Elysium mission ranged from simple what-happens-to-a-marshmallow demonstrations to studies of radiation shielding techniques. This year’s Firestar mission flew into Near Space on June 17 (read the University of Bristol press release).

Nasa issued a Request For Information for a Tissue Engineering Challenge. The space agency is trying to figure out how deep space missions will deal with medical emergencies. Diagnosis and treatment could be made easier by 3D printing lung, heart, or other organ tissue. Nasa's Centennial Challenges team wants to offer $500,000 in prize money to teams who generate “vascularized, functional tissue in vitro.” Agency officials want feedback on the contest rules and the potential benefits of the technology beyond Nasa’s specific focus. 

The Museum of the Coastal Bend flew its own Near Space project over Texas earlier this year. Timed with an exhibit about the region’s role in the US space program, the project flew experiments contributed by students in New Mexico. The museum’s curator summarized the students’ results in the Victoria Advocate.

The Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria, TX launched a balloon to near space: 112,400 feet. Enjoy the view from the edge of space. Aboard the balloon were science experiments from Pinon Elementary School in Los Alamos, New Mexico.