Amateur Space Weekly - September 25

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.

Several stories this week touched on public observatories - communities taking advantage of dark skies to enhance science education and attract astronomy tourists. The town of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, built an open-air planetarium, the Rio Rancho Observer reports. During the day visitors can become human sun dials. At night the dark skies provide visitors spectacular views of the heavens. A community trust on the Isle of Lewis bought land for a public observatory, The Scotsman reports. The remote location provides perfect dark sky viewing - but no promises about clouds. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History re-opened its observatory after a decade of disuse, the Independent reports. The wheelchair-accessible telescope, combined with live webcasts, will give the central California community unique access to the stars. The Yorkshire Dales National Park conducted workshops to help local businesses attract astronomy tourists to the region’s dark skies, the Craven Herald reports.

Space Makers

7th Grade Noli Indian School students prepare their "PongSat" ping-pong balls for launch. Credit: Soboba Casino

Noli Indian School 6th and 7th graders will send experiments into the stratosphere. The Native American students will build their own PongSats by placing objects inside ping-pong balls. A JP Aerospace high-altitude balloon will carry the experiments 30 kilometers into near space where they will exposed to extreme temperatures and intense radiation. Several students described their experiments to the Press Enterprise. 

Model rocketry can be much more than firing kit rockets on a weekend. It can set kids on the path to careers in engineering and the sciences. New Hampshire teens have entered the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the Union Leader reports. The fifteen high school students will hand-build their own rockets to launch raw eggs 850 feet in the air and land them safely on the Earth. If their hard work pays off they will attend the TARC finals next year to compete for the national rocketry championship. Teenagers in Connecticut have more ambitious goals, Electronics 360 reports. They are building a 150-lb rocket that they hope will fly 16,000 feet high. Once students get into college, they can keep making rockets. Every year Nasa challenges university students to build a high-performance rocket that will climb 5,280 feet above the ground. Georgetown University undergraduates launched a rocketry club to compete in next year’s Student Launch contest, The Hoya reports. 

The Google Lunar X-Prize announced the winners of its Moonbots Challenge. 235 teams from 29 entered the contest to design a lunar rover based on a myth or theory about the Moon that inspires them. Thirteen pre-teens from Italy, Mexico, and the United States won this year’s contest. A majority of the budding engineers were girls - the first time this happened in the contest’s six-year history. The kids will get an expenses-paid trip to Japan where they will meet the GLXP teams. “While each entry was unique, they were all incredibly engaging and will provide inspiration for kids all over the world,” Google Lunar XPRIZE senior director Chanda Gonzales said in the press release.

A Spanish artist’s exhibit took inspiration from the Google Lunar X-Prize, Fast Company’s Co.Exist reports. Jorge Mañes Rubio created an urban myth about a Japanese engineer, Akitoshi Fujiyama, who made a secret trip to the Moon. Rubio then created artifacts that “document” the secret space program. From the pachinko parlor mission control center to the cosmic ray shoji screen, Rubio’s work challenges observers to distinguish fiction from reality.

China’s Long March 6 rocket carried nine amateur radio satellites into orbit, ARRL reports. The satellites’ form factors included picosatellites, nanosatellites, CubeSats, and microsatellites. China Daily highlighted Lilac-2, a 3U CubeSat built by 40 students at Harbin Institute of Technology. The university created the satellite program to let its students apply their classroom education to an actual space project. According to the Lilac-2 website (in Chinese), the satellite will test fault-tolerant electronics and capture infrared images of Earth. 

The United States Naval Research Laboratory announced registration for the 11th annual Texas CanSat Competition. University students gather in Texas every June to launch CanSats on high performance rockets. Each CanSat must record and transmit data during its descent - while protecting its raw egg passenger. The Texas CanSat Competition gives engineering students valuable hands-on experience in a multi-disciplinary technology project. Forty-two teams from universities around the world attended last June’s competition. The top three finishers came from universities in Poland, the United States, and Canada.

Alabama high school students are learning what it takes to work for Nasa, the Decatur Daily reports.  This is Austin High School’s first year in Nasa’s Hunch program. (Hunch is a mildly tortured acronym for High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware) The program is part of the space agency’s efforts to foster the manufacturing sector by giving teens hands-on experience with modern fabrication tools. The space station handrail the students built is a simple part, but required a lot of custom work over the summer.

Exploring the Solar System

European scientists created the F-Hunters campaign to supplement their data with amateur observations of solar flares. Source: F-chroma

European scientists called on members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers for help observing solar flares. Despite the orbiter, rover, and fly-by missions space agencies send across the Solar System, and the mountaintop observatories with cutting edge telescopes, planetary scientists often turn to amateur astronomers for help. F-Chroma is a European project to study how energy from solar flares flows through the Sun’s atmosphere. The F-Hunters campaign enlists amateur astronomers to “create an archive of chromospheric flare observations and models to be made available to the community for further research”. Amateur telescopes’ wider coverage lets scientists place their solar flare observations in context. With many amateurs making many observations, the scientists can get a better idea of how solar flares develop and dissipate.

Exploring Deep Space

Australian astronomers hope crowdfunding will rescue their research, the Daily Telegraph reports. A combination of budget cuts and expensive new project has strained astronomy programs around the world. As the CSIRO, Australia’s science agency, builds the Square Kilometer Array it has had to close smaller radio telescopes. That sent several research projects scrambling for a plan B. The Mopra Galactic Plane CO Survey uses the 22 meter Mopra Telescope to map carbon monoxide in the Milky Way’s fourth quadrant. The scientists hope the data will improve our understanding of how star-forming clouds form in the interstellar medium. When they learned the Mopra Telescope would close, the scientists launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the telescope’s operations for a month so they can finish their project. With an original goal of AUD$65,000, the campaign has raised AUD$76,225 with two weeks to go. The campaign’s success - and breathless media coverage - prompted the CSIRO to post a reality check. The astronomy community has known about cutbacks to Mopra’s operations for several years, it explained. A consortium led by the University of New South Wales hopes to raise funds to continue Mopra’s operations for the next three years.

Thousands of citizen scientists helped discover gravitational lenses, Symmetry Magazine reports. Massive galaxies’ gravitational fields warp space around them, bending the path photons take as they pass by. When a galaxy and Earth align just right, the galaxy acts like a telescope lens and lets astronomers study much more distant objects than they could with traditional telescopes. More than 37,000 people took part in the Space Warps citizen science project to crowdsource a catalog of gravitational lenses. The project’s scientists just published two papers that describe the project’s early results (arXiv preprints 1504.06148 and 1504.05587). The amateurs’ 11,000,000 classifications filtered 430,000 images to a set of a few hundred that expert analysts could easily study. The project discovered 29 new lens candidates that automated searches missed.

Thousands of volunteers helped discover a cloud of comets orbiting another star, New Scientist reports. The volunteers took part in the Planet Hunters citizen science project where they reviewed data from Nasa's Kepler Space Telescope for signs of alien planets. They spotted a series of unusual dips in one set of data and began discussing it in the project’s forum. Planet Hunter scientists conducted follow-up observations. In their paper submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (arXiv preprint 1509.03622). They believe that when it passed close to its star a huge comet broke up into a family of comet fragments. This cluster of comets and its surrounding dust cloud orbits the star every 700 days

Other news from the world of amateur space exploration: