Amateur Space Weekly - July 26

This week's roundup of news from the world of amateur space exploration includes an artist inspired by astronomy, teens who will send science projects to the space station and the Moon, meteorologists who want the public's help mapping hail, communities preserving dark skies, and more.

Space Makers

A Russell Crotty exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles, 2000 Source: UC Berkeley

An astronomy-inspired artist received a $30,000 grant (UC Santa Cruz). The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts awarded the grant to the university to support the residency of artist and amateur astronomer Russell Crotty. He will collect images from the Lick Observatory to create new artworks, teach, and conduct public outreach events.

The Alabama legislature honored local teen rocketeers (Times Daily). Earlier this year they won the national championships at the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Last month they represented the United States at the International Rocketry Challenge where they out-flew British and French rocket teams to win the world championships.

Tennessee teachers learn how rocket-making enhances science education (Knoxville News-Sentinel). The annual University of Tennessee Aerospace Education Teacher Workshop has helped more than 400 teachers bring experiential learning projects into the classroom.

New Hampshire teens sent a cosmic ray detector and other instruments into Near Space (Concord Monitor). A summer program at the University of New Hampshire gives high school students hands-on science research experience. Seventeen students built their own instruments and sent them almost 100,000 feet into the stratosphere on a weather balloon.

Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly with the Spheres robots during his 2010 stay on the International Space Station. Designed to test spacecraft control software in zero gravity, the Spheres project also lets students apply their programming skills in space. Credit: Nasa

Idaho middle school students prepare to take over space robots (Coeur d'Alene Press). They are part of Zero Robotics, an international programming contest for middle and high school students. Teams compete to design the most efficient code and earn a chance to control the Spheres robots on the International Space Station.

An Australian amateur radio enthusiast’s balloon project circled Earth twice (Sydney Morning Herald). Network engineer Andy Nguyen attached a DIY radio system to a mylar party balloon and released it in May. By the time stormy weather brought it down two months later it had traveled over 110,000 kilometers and almost completed its third round-the-world journey.

Amateurs in Zero-G

Washington teens may make astronauts’ diets more interesting (Capital Press). Wapato High School is part of Hunch, a Nasa program that encourages modern vocational education by letting teenagers build parts for use on the International Space Station. As students’ skills grow they get to take on more sophisticated projects. The Wapato students have designed a cooler that could keep fruit and vegetables fresher, longer in space. They went to the Johnson Space Center this summer to test their system on the space agency’s zero-g aircraft - the vomit comet.

Colorado students will get a second chance to send their research into space (Spaceflight Insider).  Their project investigates a hydrogen-producing algae that could be used to supply future space explorers. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the organization that manages private-sector research on the International Space Station, chose the students’ project as part of an educational pilot program.

A British PE teacher will fly on a zero-gravity aircraft to raise money for charity (Blackmore Vale Magazine). 

Exploring Earth

Scientists are crowdsourcing hail observations (CBS Denver). Meteorologists can’t tell what’s happening across the hundred-mile distances between official weather stations. They depend on networks of amateur weather observers like Cocorahs to fill in the blanks. The special pads volunteers use to record the size and rate of hail fall will give scientists crucial data to improve forecasts.

California schools have joined an earthquake-tracking crowdsource project (CBS Los Angeles). Official seismic sensors are usually tens or hundreds of miles apart. That gives seismologists data on an earthquake’s regional extent, but the impact of an earthquake is local. The Quake Catcher Network relies on volunteer-hosted seismic sensors to create a high resolution map of earthquakes’ intensities. Schools in the network use the data in their science classes to let students work with real-world data.

Exploring the Solar System

Arizona students and amateur astronomers help explore Pluto’s neighborhood (KAWC). The Recon project enlisted 60 communities in the western United States to host small telescopes at libraries and schools. Several times a year the communities observe Kuiper Belt occultations on behalf of the Recon project’s professional researchers. In exchange the communities get to use the equipment to enhance science education and conduct astronomy outreach events. [Read my interview with the Recon project’s scientists

Hawaiian teens receive a $35,000 grant to develop their lunar science project (Pacific Space Center). Lunar exploration missions must deal with electrostatically charged lunar dust which sticks to surfaces like solar panels and sensors. Without wind to blow the dust away, dust will accumulate and degrade a lander’s performance. Students in the MoonRiders project are using a Nasa technology to create an electromagnetic forcefield that could let equipment last longer on the Moon, asteroids, and other airless bodies. They may have a chance to send their project to the Moon with one of the Google Lunar X-Prize contestants.

Exploring Deep Space

A $100 million grant to search for extraterrestrial civilizations will help the crowdsourced Seti@Home project (UC Berkeley). The Breakthrough Listen Project will be the world’s most intensive Seti project as it collects radio frequency data from America’s Green Bank Telescope and Australia’s Parkes Observatory. The data processing work will be parceled out to Seti@Home volunteers who donate their personal computers’ spare processing power. The 1.5 million volunteers combine to produce 1,900 TeraFlops (AllProjectStats) - more powerful than all but 30 of the world’s largest supercomputers (Top500 June 2015).

More communities are joining the dark sky movement. Montgomery, Texas, enacted dark sky regulations to counter Houston's growth (Houston Chronicle, subscription required). Outlying communities like Montgomery are growing as Houston expands. Preserving dark skies will help preserve Montgomery’s quality of life even as its population grows. Astronomy tourism justified a Virginia region’s light pollution regulations (WRAL). Staunton River State Park’s dark skies attract amateur astronomers from across the southeastern United States. As the state park system sought International Dark Sky Association certification, the communities established outdoor lighting policies

Teenagers from Hawaii, China, Japan, India, Canada arrived at the future site of the Thirty Meter Telescope for a summit on astronomy and culture (Pacific Business Journal).