Amateur Space Weekly - September 5

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

Student rocket launching above the fields of Virginia during the 2015 Team America Rocketry Challenge Credit: Team America Rocketry Challenge

The Aerospace Industry Association kicked off the 2016 Team America Rocketry Challenge. Thousands of teenagers across the United States, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands will begin building their own rockets to compete in the largest model rocketry competition in the world. Their rockets must carry two raw eggs 850 feet into the sky and return the eggs safely to the Earth. The 100 top-scoring teams will compete in the national finals for bragging rights, gear, and scholarships. The national champion represents the United States at the Farnborough International Airshow’s International Rocketry Challenge in London next summer. 

his year’s TARC champions, a team of Alabama teens, went on to win the IRC at the Paris Air Show. Having won the world championships, Made in Alabama reports, the Russellville rocket team want to compete alongside university teams in Nasa’s Student Launch program. But Alabama’s presence in TARC 2016 will strengthen. The University of Northern Alabama will help 26 local schools to field teams for this years rocket contest, WHNT reports.

Middle school kids took control of Nasa’s robots on the International Space Station. Zero Robotics is an annual competition that foster programming skills among students in the United States and Esa member-states. The kids write code to control an online simulation of the space station’s Spheres robots. The teams with the best code get to control the real thing in a live event hosted by astronauts in orbit and at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center. Massachusetts fielded the winning team, but local media didn’t pick up the news. The Coeur d’Alene Press hailed Idaho’s second-place team who thought “it’s awesome that we made it this far.” Other media picked up an article from JSC’s employee newsletter that featured local Texas teams. This was the first time the Lone Star State’s middle schoolers competed in Zero Robotics. The Battery reported that faculty and students at Texas A&M University mentored the students throughout the five week program. You can watch video of this year's competition at MIT's website.

The Warsaw University of Technology will conduct a CanSat competition for Polish makers of all ages. Just as model rockets are small-scale, fully-functioning rockets launched by amateurs, CanSats are model satellites equipped with a variety of sensors, radios, and computers. The European Space Agency conducts the annual European CanSat competition to encourage secondary school science and engineering education among its member nations. American aerospace companies sponsor the Internation CanSat Competition to do the same for undergraduate students. The Polish effort will allow students and adults alike to take part. The CanSats will fly up to three kilometers on a rocket designed and built by WUT students.

Students from a Native American community college took part in Nasa’s RockOn! program. The program challenges university students to design a scientific payload for the space agency’s suborbital rockets. Teams usually come from large university’s with strong aerospace research programs. Chief Dull Knife College is not that kind of school. But the seven faculty and staff are committed to helping the school’s 150 students learn science and mathematics. A team of 24 Northern Cheyenne students travelled to Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center where they held their own alongside engineering students from the large universities. Faculty mentor Jeff Hooker told Nasa “It was exciting to see that we weren’t always the first ones done, but we were never the last ones done.” The students’ achievement has inspired them to enter Nasa’s more challenging Rocksat-C suborbital research program.

Rowan-Cabarrus and other North Carolina community colleges awarded scholarships to students who got near space. The program, sponsored by Nasa and the North Carolina Space Grant Consortium, gives students hands-on experience conducting scientific research with stratospheric balloons.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space reports that two educational cubesats arrived at the International Space Station. Japan’s H-II cargo capsule delivered GOMX-3 which Esa astronaut Andreas Mogensen will use during his outreach activities. Students at Denmark’s Aalborg University built AAUSAT5 to test maritime safety technology.

And in another Danish space milestone: Copenhagen Suborbital crowdfunded their next test launches. The all-volunteer space program hopes to launch people on a suborbital rocket. They needed $10,000 to achieve a smaller goal: conducting sea-based launches to test technologies. Indiegogo contributors donated more than $11,000.

Other news about amateur space makers:

Amateurs in Microgravity

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program sends student experiments to the International Space Station. It’s community-based approach allows hundreds of students to propose research projects. Since its launch in 2010, the SSEP has engaged almost 46,000 kids across the United States and Canada in microgravity research.

Vox dismissed the entire concept of suborbital tourism in its piece “Why space tourism is going to be utterly disappointing” saying that the danger and discomfort won’t be worth the cost. But thrill-seeking millionaires are only part of the story. Rocketplane companies like XCor Aerospace and Virgin Galactic will open doors for people who could never dream of going into space. Africa Daily reports, for example, that a competition will send the first black African into space. The finalists include a Nigerian doctor who treated ebola victims in Sierra Leone, a South African sports broadcaster, and a South African advisor to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Another contest may send an American teacher on a ride into space. Teachers in Space has called on educators to write an essay on “Why Space and Science Education Matters” for the chance to test a spacesuit on an XCor flight. 

Exploring Earth

Noaa’s Skywarn network of volunteer weather-spotters crowdsources reports of extreme weather. The weather agency’s network of radars and sensors have technical limits that often leave meteorologists blind to what’s actually happening on the ground. At a recent volunteer training session covered by the Santa Clarita Valley Signal, meteorologists explained that they can’t detect California’s winter snowfall. The National Weather Service’s Los Angeles office depends on the volunteer reports to issue warnings of treacherous conditions in the region’s mountain areas.

Cocorahs is another crowdsourced weather program that collects rainfall measurements from the public. Weather is so local that official weather stations can’t detect intense rainfall a short distance away. Cocorahs Canada formed a few year ago, but still needs volunteers. The CBC reported on a Cocorahs membership drive in Windsor, the Canadian city south of Detroit.

The US Geological Survey’s Did You Feel It program crowdsources public reports of earthquakes. The reports arrive faster than data from the agency’s seismic sensors, giving emergency responders crucial information. Seismologists also use the reports to understand what happens between the USGS’ widely-separated seismic sensors. The New York Times reported that more than 13,000 people contributed to Did You Feel It after the recent earthquake in Northern California.

The public can join the Quake Catcher Network to help fill the gaps between America’s seismic sensors. Small sensors taped to the floor and connected to a PC send seismic data to the QCN’s servers. The Press Enterprise wrote that a California school joined the Quake Catcher Network to raise earthquake awareness and enhance science education.

Tomnod improves responses to natural disasters and environmental problems by crowdsourcing the analysis of satellite images. Tomnod allied with the Turtle Island Restoration Network to crowdsource protection of a Costa Rican marine sanctuary from illegal fishing.

Exploring the Solar System

Penn State University’s student-led Lunar Lions withdrew from the Google Lunar X-Prize. Even though the contest to land the first privately-financed robots on the Moon pushed its deadline (again) to 2017, the schedule’s demands threatened to undermine the project’s educational mission. An independent panel advised the university to give the Lunar Lions an independent development schedule that integrates with Penn State’s academic program. Student Team Leader Max Winn said in the Penn State press release that the Lunar Lions are “enthusiastic to leave the competition and pursue the mission on our own terms.”

Sunspotter is a crowdsourced science project that measures the complexity of sun spots. Automated software struggles to measure the irregular, fuzzy shapes created by the Sun’s tangled magnetic field. Scientists turned to the public to analyse 60,000 images from Nasa’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. It must have been slow to take off because Sunspotter's scientists challenged citizen scientists to make 200,000 contributions in one week. Things went better than expected. Within 16 hours more than 260,000 classifications flooded in, prompting the team to revise the challenge to 1,000,000 classifications.

Finding meteorites is the cheapest way to collect samples of asteroids, moons, and planets. The challenge is finding the fallen rocks before Earth’s environment contaminates or destroys them. Networks of all-sky video cameras, often hosted by amateurs, record large meteors streaking across the night sky so scientists can triangulate potential meteorite falls. The Natural History Museum Vienna joined France's Fripon video meteor network. A couple of meteorites land in Austria every year, but only seven have been found over the past 250 years. The museum hopes joining Fripon will boost that recovery rate.

The stellar clusters spotted by the Andromeda Project's citizen scientists will let astronomers study how stars form and evolve. Source: Hubblesite

Scientists published the Andromeda Project’s results (DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/802/2/127, arXiv preprint: 1501.04966). About 20,000 citizen scientists contributed 1.8 million public classifications to the crowdsourcing project. That let the project scientists identify over 2,700 stellar clusters within the Andromeda Galaxy’s spiral arms. Newly formed stars emerge from their dusty cradles in clusters that disperse over time. The Andromeda Project’s publicly-created catalog will help astronomers study the evolution of stellar clusters. More details at the Space Telescope Science Institute's Hubblesite.

A new citizen science project is crowdsourcing galaxies, The Conversation reports. Galaxy Explorer asks the public to classify galaxies. While it sounds identical to Galaxy Zoo, it is no copy cat. The galaxies span a 3 billion light year range. The classifications will let the project’s scientists map the evolution of galaxies.

Sofia is Nasa’s airborne observatory, a Boeing 747 carrying an infrared telescope. A dozen middle and high school science teachers get to join Sofia’s scientists to conduct their own research. This year the Sofia Ambassador program played things differently. The Telegram & Gazette reports that Massachusetts art teacher Stacy Lord and science teacher Howard Fain will produce a documentary that blends art and science. The two will mix on a different flight when Georgia science educators April Whitt and Susan Oltman join Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Uhura, for a high-altitude astronomy mission.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers sent out a call for volunteers. Its VSX project is the largest amateur-led project to catalog the galaxy’s variable stars. The rate of variable star discoveries has accelerated thanks to Europe’s Gaia space telescope and upcoming projects like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope promise to up the discovery tempo even more. The AAVSO needs more people than ever to review the scientific literature for new variable stars.

Other amateurs exploring deep space:

Loose Ends - The things that don’t fit up above

A documentary followed high school students as they explored space through amateur telescopes, Petapixel reported. The producers used the low light performance of the Sony A7s digital camera to turn night into day.

A recent arXiv preprint (1507.08552) looks at how astronomers view education and public outreach. Astronomers believe outreach is important responsibility rather than a hobby, but lack the professional support to invest more time and money fostering the next generation of scientists.

Australian National University organized a world record-setting stargazing event, ABC reports. More than 1,800 people gathered in a field at the university’s Canberra campus, handily beating the previous record of 649 stargazers. Another 10,000 people attended events across Australia to set a record for the largest multi-site stargazing party.

Other random bits of news: