Amateur Space Weekly - August 16

Every week I recap headlines from the world of amateur space exploration. From students sending research to the International Space Station to retirees searching for planets orbiting other stars, space exploration belongs to more than just the astronauts.

Space Makers

Yet another space project is heading for crowdfunding disaster. SpaceVR hopes to install virtual reality cameras on the International Space Station. Subscribers would watch the 3D video feed on virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. SpaceVR launched a Kickstarter project last week to fund its development and operation costs - $500,000. Despite gushing reports from the tech press, the project only raised $35,000 in pledges during its first week. That indicates the project will mis its goal by $400,000 unless its founders take dramatic action.

High school students in California kicked off the new school year with a little rocket science, San Francisco's ABC affiliate reports. While many rocketeers build their own model rockets, the students got to take an extra step and test their rockets in a professional wind tunnel.

A Texas museum sent student experiments to the edge of space, the Victoria Advocate reports. The Museum of the Coastal Bend entry in this year's Global Space Balloon Challenge was named the Most Educational Intitiative. The prize included flight computers and other equipment from High Altitude Sciences.

University students around the world are putting the final touches on their Mars Rovers, AstroWatch reports. They will compete in the European Rover Challenge next month in Poland, AstroWatch reports. Unlike the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge which is held in a remote desert, Poland’s central location allowed 25,000 spectators to watch last year’s event.

Amsat North America's latest amateur satellite will reach orbit in the fall, the Amateur Radio Relay League reports. The Fox-1a will hitch a ride to space thanks to a Nasa program for educational satellites. The satellite will carry an experiment designed by students at Pennsylvania State University to test smartphone-style motion sensors in zero gravity. It will also carry an amateur radio transponder to relay ham radio signals.

The CubeSat standard and off-the-shelf electronics has lowered the cost of building a satellite dramatically. Launching that satellite into orbit is another question. Nasa’s Cubesat Launch Initiative helps lower those costs for American satellite projects. Last week the space agency announced its latest round of educational Cubesat opportunities. Nasa hopes to get applications from the 24 “rookies” - 21 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico - who have never taken part. The European Space Agency is conducting a survey to find out how to improve its support for educational Cubesat projects. Meanwhile, Made in Space and Nanoracks announced they will manufacture Cubesats on the International Space Station.

Amateurs in Zero-G

A Terrier-improved Malemute sounding rocket launches into the morning sky above Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried undergraduate experiments 97 miles above Earth to conduct microgravity research. Credit: Nasa/Brea Reeves

Nasa launched student projects towards space to conduct microgravity research. The space agency's Wallops Flight Facility operates suborbital research rocket launches and hosts education projects that let undergraduates conduct microgravity experiments.

Citizens in Space is a program that wants to support amateur science on future suborbital rocketplanes flown by XCor and Virgin Galactic. Last week it announced that the first round of experiments will include research developed by museums, high schools, and undergraduate students. When those experiments fly still depends on the development schedule at XCor - it hasn’t started test flights of its Lynx rocketplane.




Exploring Earth

While I don’t normally cover business news, Urthecast’s 2nd quarter results included news that affects amateur explorers of our planet. The company is developing a web API that will give its own website, 3rd party app developers, and consumer websites access to its library of Earth images. The recent acquisition of Deimos and its 6.5 million square kilometer archive will “significantly enhance” that platform the company said in its management discussion. “The web platform will enable the democratization of EO data and enable a broader understanding of how the world changes.” 

Urthecast isn’t the only player making space images of Earth more accessible. TechCrunch reports that established remote sensing company DigitalGlobe will let app developers integrate its high-resolution images through its upcoming API

A moonlit Gulf of Mexico is surrounded by Texas city lights as seen from the International Space Station (ISS042-E-241898) Credit: Nasa/Johnson Space Center/Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit

Nasa’s astronauts take a lot of pictures of Earth which it distributes free of charge. Spanish scientists have asked citizen scientists to help analyze these images, reports EE News. The Cities at Night program wants to use those images to measure light pollution. Without dedicated research grants to fund operations… they launched a Kickstarter campaign. Cities at Night hopes to raise €50,000. The money will let them replace the soon-to-be-shut-down Google Map Engine with a dedicated server. In its first week the two month campaign raised less than €900 in pledges.

Milwaukee’s Journal-Sentinel reported on the citizen scientists who are analyzing satellite images of hurricanes. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin co-founded the Cyclone Center crowdsourcing project to produce a catalog of hurricane data that’s more consistent than anything meteorologists have had before.

The Society for Science wrote an article about the many ways seismologists crowdsource earthquake data. From volunteers who install seismic sensors to smartphone apps, the crowdsource approach lets scientists get higher resolution data on the quakes’ effects.

Exploring the Solar System

The annual Perseid meteor shower creates a nightly light show every fall. The Israeli town of Mitzpe Ramon turns off the lights just so visitors - more than 10,000 of them - can get a clear view of the shooting stars (Algemeiner). Meteor-spotting can also support science. Amateur meteor-spotter Chris Crawford wants to crowdsource global counts of the meteors with his Android app, reports the American Meteor Society. Amateur radio enthusiasts have another way to monitor meteors: listening for TV transmissions reflected from the meteor’s trail of ionized gas. Southgate Amateur Radio News ran reports on a meteor scattering workshop and on one of the meteor-detecting devices. If your skies were cloudy, the Weather Network UK has collected social media images and videos of the Perseids.

The Mars Society held its annual convention last week. A Peruvian engineering student presented her research into the use of sweet potatoes as a potential food for astronauts (Peru21).

Exploring Deep Space

Vermont plays an outsized role in amateur astronomy, Vermont Public Radio reports. Over the weekend Vermont hosted the 80th Stellafane Convention, the largest annual gathering of amateur telescope makers in the world. New Horizons principal investigator Dr. Alan Stern delivered the keynote address, providing attendees with the latest news from Pluto.

Australians hope to set a new world record for stargazing, the Canberra Times reports. Australian National University is coordinating the effort to have the most stargazers at a single site and the most stargazers in one country on Friday night, August 21.

Navajo middle school students will get to see what college-level astronomy is all about, reports the Arizona Daily Sun. A student at an Coconino Community College landed grants from Nasa and Northern Arizona University to help the students attend workshops and get hands-on time with the college’s telescope. The funding only covers the cost of a van big enough for 10 students, but Kiril Kirkov told the Daily Sun that he hopes to get additional funding so all students from the school can attend.

Other headlines form the week in amateur space exploration:

  • Canadian rocketeers find launch site near Toronto (Guelph Mercury)
  • New York teen coordinates local Cocorahs network to crowdsource weather observations (Chronicle Express)
  • Einstein@Home, the crowdsourced computing project, celebrated its tenth anniversary last week. (Light Reading)
  • Amateur astronomer and former Sky & Telescope editor awarded for his pioneering work (Sky & Telescope)
  • Kansas amateur astronomers want to take over Wichita’s public observatory and space museum. (Wichita Eagle)