Amateur Space Weekly - September 18

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.

Public observatories enrich communities by giving them access to the night sky they could never get on their own. They enhance local science education by giving students hands-on experience collecting astronomical data. Public observatories also serve as centers for science outreach. Two stories appeared the week that show how astronomy enthusiasts bring the Universe to communities in the United States and Australia.

An outdoor educator in Wyoming is bringing public observatories to Jackson Hole. Samuel Singer organizes local amateur astronomers and conducts public stargazing sessions to show the community and Jackson Hole’s tourists the wonders of the night sky. The Jackson Hole News and Guide reports that the lead investor in a local ski resort enlisted Singer’s help building observatories at the resort.

The 119-year old Perth Observatory, once a leading research center, now serves the public in Western Australia. The Australian government stopped funding the observatory several years ago after larger observatories made it obsolete. Rather than let the observatory disappear, local amateur astronomers volunteered to keep it running. Yahoo News explains how it is now a center for public astronomy and the site of regular observing sessions. The amateur astronomers hope to expand the observatory and even digitize decades of photographic plates that scientists used in their research.

Space Makers

A Near Space camera once thought lost forever was found two years after its flight. Five friends got together in 2013 to fly a weather balloon into the stratosphere above the Grand Canyon. Everything went according to plan… except the landing. The balloon’s instruments included a smartphone which would text GPS coordinates to aid the recovery. Unfortunately it landed in an area without any AT&T Wireless coverage. The team gave up hope and forgot about it until a few weeks ago. While on a hike, an AT&T employee found the balloon’s remains. She took the smartphone into an AT&T store where the employees pulled the account information from the SIM card.

Last week I reported on the Native American community college students who attended Nasa’s RockOn suborbital rocket program. An article in the Missoulian looks at how faculty at Chief Dull Knife College use Nasa resources to enhance their students’ education.

Quartz wrote about Copenhagen Suborbital’s effort to launch humans into space. The all-volunteer program turned to crowdfunding for its latest round of test launches off the coast of Denmark. Unfortunately, the writer’s constant references to “sending a man into space” distract from an otherwise interesting piece. Set aside the 21st Century preference for “crewed” over the anachronistic “manned”. Copenhagen Suborbital’s final rocket will require an astronaut who is short and light - they fully expect their first passenger will be a woman.

The European Space Agency released video from European CanSat Competition. The annual contest encourages STEM education among teens in Esa member states. The teens design and build a model satellite the size of a soda can. After Esa launches the CanSats on a suborbital rocket, the CanSats must parachute to the ground while collecting data. While the most recent competition was held in Portugal, the just-released footage is from a 2012 contest conducted at the Andøya Rocket Range in Norway.

The Daily Wildcat wrote about an Arizona company that will carry tourists to the edge of space. Unlike the extreme experience provided by rocketplane companies XCor and Virgin Galactic, the Near Space balloon ride emphasizes “the serenity of space”.

Amateurs in Zero-G

More Canadian students will send research projects to the International Space Station. Magellan Aerospace announced that it will bridge funding gaps for Canadian communities that take part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. The SSEP helps schools and school districts develop research projects and helps get the projects into orbit. The community must raise the $28,000 program cost. If the community falls short, the SSEP and its partners help bridge the gap. Magellan Aerospace helped a couple of Canadian schools with their efforts and has now formalized their relationship with the SSEP.

Exploring Earth

Journalism is the latest profession to adopt space technology, Slate reports. Remote sensing data, once the exclusive province of scientists and intelligence analysts, has become more accessible as the number of satellites has increased. Digital Globe specializes in high-resolution data that let journalists use detailed images of events as seen from space. When Planet Labs’ network of small satellites is complete, it will give journalists live video and photos of events as they happen.

Exploring the Solar System

A science writer in Thailand spotted the 3,000th comet in an image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Nasa and Esa launched the space telescope to study the Sun and monitor space weather. It also happened to be a good tool for spotting sungrazing comets. The only catch is the sheer number of images Soho sends to Earth. Researchers at the US Naval Research Laboratory turned to citizen scientists for help. Volunteers review daily images on the Soho website and report any sightings of comets. NRL scientist Karl Battams said in the press release “There are scientists, teachers, writers. We have even had two 13-year-olds.”

Laboratory News explains how the Aurorasaurus project fills gaps in space weather data with help from citizen scientists. Anyone who sees an aurora can report it to Aurorasaurus via social media. The reports give scientists and emergency responders real-time reports on auroral activity that can effect satellites, communications, and electrical grids. Laboratory News mentions that only 5% of the aurora reporters are British even though large aurorae regularly appear over the United Kingdom.

Exploring Deep Space

A 10-year old amateur astronomer may be the youngest person in China to discover a supernova, Chinanews reports. Liao Jiaming reviewed 8,000 images for the sudden appearance of a “new” star. He was participating in an online citizen science project that lets the Chinese public search for supernovae. The images come from the amateur-built Xingming Observatory in Western China. Liao lives in the eastern city of Heifei, but light pollution makes astronomy impossible. “I like watching the starry sky,” Liao told Chinanews, “but cannot see them at night in the city.”

Do you feel a draft? Nasa's modified Boeing 747 carries a 100-inch infrared telescope to altitudes 10,000 feet higher than commercial aircraft fly. Above the light-absorbing moisture of the lower atmosphere the flying observatory supports research no ground-based telescope can do. Credit: Nasa/Jim Ross

Lowell Observatory Historian Kevin Schindler wrote about his experience on Nasa’s flying observatory. He was part of the Sofia Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program which gives educators hands-on experience in infrared astronomy - with a twist. The Sofia observatory is an infrared telescope mounted inside a heavily-modified Boeing 747. The jumbo jet flies astronomers 60,000 feet to get away from the infrared-absorbing moisture of the lower atmosphere. The German space agency DLR built the observatory's 100-inch telescope. Schindler’s first article explains the preparation for the flight. His second article documents the science educators' stratospheric flight.

Other news in amateur space exploration: