Amateur Space Weekly - January 18

The Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space Museum live streamed a solar prominence. Entangled magnetic field lines release enormous energy that blasts sheets of plasma from the Sun's surface. Called a prominence when seen in profile at the edge of the solar disk, these coronal mass ejections are a big part of space weather. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

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.

Jump to:

  • Space Makers: Amateur satellites, kids building hardware for Nasa, and turning a hobby into a career
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Roman kids control robots in space, schools in Washington and Texas sending teen science experiments into orbit
  • Exploring Earth: Better weather forecasts and saving glaciers through crowdsourcing, saving forests from space, and space archaeologists
  • Exploring the Solar System: Observing the Sun and spotting meteors from above
  • Exploring Deep Space: Chinese teens searching for pulsars, Afghan amateur astronomers' struggles, and an amateur Planet Hunter receives national honor

Space Makers

Proceeds from a professional space conference have helped 73 student space projects reach orbit. Pat Hynes, the International Symposium on Private and Commercial Spaceflight, explained to Spacedotcom how CubeSats and other low-cost technologies let academic programs design and build small satellites without outside grants. The challenge has been getting those projects into space. The demand for academic and industry CubeSat projects outstrips the supply of launch slots. That raises launch costs into the low six figures and limits launch availability. Without closing the loop, Hynes argues, the students’ experience is not as valuable.

University of Portugal researchers believe student-led satellite projects could revolutionize oceanography (arXiv: 1512.07442). They explain that low-cost hardware can survive the extreme space environment to make small, affordable space missions possible. The scientists review recent uses of small satellites for research and explain how student-led projects could lead to more detailed studies of Earth’s oceans.

High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware (Hunch) lets high school students around the United States build spare parts for the International Space Station. It is part of Nasa’s efforts to foster the nation's modern manufacturing. Hunch gives teenagers hands-on experience with state-of-the-art design and manufacturing technologies. Over the course of several years the students and their teachers learn how to meet Nasa's quality standards. The parts they make from blankets to storage lockers regularly go up to the space station. This article from the Daily Record describes Hunch’s arrival in the community of Morris, New Jersey. As the Nasa officials explain, the students have become contractors for Nasa's Johnson Space Center.

You must combine engineering, electronics, coding, and physics to send a high-altitude balloon into the stratosphere. That makes these affordable near space exploration projects an ideal way to enhance science and math education. Atmospheric scientist Danny Bowman explains to HAB Education how he turned his near space ballooning hobby into a career in science.

Amateurs in Zero-G

Romanian teens will control robots on the International Space Station. Romania-Insider reports that three teams of high school students reached the finals of the Zero Robotics competition. MIT created the program to give students an incentive to learn software programming. The competitors improve their code through several qualifying rounds before reaching the finals. On that day the students gather at the MIT campus or Esa’s space center in Belgium. After their code gets uploaded to the space station’s Spheres robots the kids get to watch the robots execute their commands. This year’s finals include students from Esa member-states, Russia, Australia, and the United States.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has helped almost 124 communities send 153 student science projects to the International Space Station, engaging nearly 50,000 teens in the scientific process. Although it ran into a speed bump after both SpaceX and Orbital/ATK launch vehicles exploded, the SSEP returned to flight last year. Twenty-two communities across the United States and Canada are now preparing for the spring launch of the SSEP’s ninth mission into space. Media reports covered several schools whose students are preparing for their very own space mission:

The Open Windows School all-girl team of 7th graders will study plant growth in simulated Martian soil. They embedded Arabidopsis seeds in the simulated soil. Once in zero-g, astronauts will mix the seeds with water and nutrients. As student scientists Vivienne Rutherford and Catherine Whitmer explained in the press release:

We developed this proposal so that [future Martian] colonists would have starter seedlings for both fresh food and for science experiments. Arabidopsis is very hardy and there is a lot of knowledge about the plant in the scientific community.

A small town school in eastern Texas has ambitions to reach orbit, the Bullard News reports. Scientists from a local university helped almost 360 of Bullard’s teens create microgravity research proposals. Local review panels narrowed the list to three finalists whose proposals went before a national review. A team of four girls from Bullard High School earned a spot on Mission 8 with their proposal to study the effect of microgravity on potato plants’ resistance to the potato blight.

Exploring Earth

Weather radars have one big weakness: they can’t see the ground. As the radar beam travels away from the tower, Earth’s curvature expands the gap between the beam and the ground below. That gap is thousands of feet high at the extreme edge of the radar’s range. Rather than make educated guesses, they turn to public reports of what’s really happening on the ground.

The Skywarn program has gathered public reports of severe weather for nearly half a century. More than 290,000 volunteers contribute to the Skywarn network. Lousiana’s KSLA reported on a recent training class. As National Weather Service meteorologist Mario Valverde explained, "Spotters are very important to us because they see what's actually going on on the ground. We have a very powerful radar here that we use all the time, but it only shows us what's going on in the atmosphere.” Volunteers attended the class to learn how to safely report thunderstorms, funnel clouds, and precipitation using ham radio, telephones, and the Internet. 

Urthecast has enhanced Global Forest Watch’s fight against deforestation using data from space. The company generates daily images of the Earth’s surface from its fleet of remote sensing satellites as well as cameras mounted on the International Space Station. Now Global Forest Watch is able to pull images from Urthecast’s database to monitor the conditions of Earth’s forests, such as the Indonesian rain forests that are illegally burned to clear land for palm oil plantations.

Space archaeologists Sarah Parcak has been making the media rounds after winning the $1 million TED Prize. But professionals aren’t the only ones who can uncover ancient history in satellite images. New Historian wrote about a Welsh amateur space archaeologist who discovered the remains of a Bronze Age site. He was originally searching Google Earth for signs of a World War I training site but something else caught his eye. The faint hint of a circular structure seemed to lie beneath a nearby hilltop. He contacted a professional archaeologist who joined him at the site. It turned out to be a 4500 year old shepherd’s hut. 

Citizen scientists may contribute more to glacier research, Glacier Hub reports. Concerns over the reliability of amateur-generated data keeps some scientists from relying on the public. Yet while scientists can’t be everywhere at once, the billions of other people can be anywhere. Italian researchers developed techniques that let citizen science projects assess the quality of their data. These techniques could lead to new projects that let visitors to glaciers around the world document their experience for science.

Exploring the Solar System

The Smithsonian Institution live streamed a solar prominence. Convection currents roiling the Sun’s surface create intense looping magnetic fields. When the fields entangle they create enormous bursts of energy that can blast plasma away from the surface. When one of these eruptions happens on the edge of the solar disc astronomers can see the plasma streaming out into space. The Smithsonian’s Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory lets daytime visitors to its Air & Space Museum look at the Sun, Venus, and Mercury through rooftop telescopes. For those who can't travel to Washington, DC, the Air & Space Museum's solar live stream lets you watch the Sun's stormy surface in action.

A British amateur astronomer adapted an industrial camera to make ultrasharp images of the Sun. Camera maker MultiPix explained in its case study how Dr. Green attached an industrial camera to his solar telescope. The camera’s sensor combines high resolution and wide dynamic range let Green simultaneously capture faint structures at the edge of the Sun’s disk along with structures on the Sun’s surface. The camera’s fast 93 fps frame rate froze atmospheric turbulence let Green’s software produce a sharper-than-normal final image.

Nasa science communicator Dr. Tony Phillips wants your help studying a solar eclipse. He announced on his spaceweather blog a citizen science ballooning program. He wants to enlist people across the country to send cameras into near space to observe the 2017 solar eclipse as it crosses the United States.

A team of Spanish scientists demonstrated another way amateurs could use balloons for science: spotting meteors from above. The more intense meteor showers often consist of more than just dust. Small pebbles and rocks produce bright fireballs. The scientists’ balloon-borne experiment used a low-light camera to catch the Quadrantid meteor shower in action. Now the scientists are working with Dr. Phillips and spaceweather to expand high-altitude meteor monitoring worldwide.

A network of amateur weather cameras caught a fireball over Brisbane, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. The crowdfunded Australian Weathercam Network pulls video from volunteers' backyard webcams to give Australians live pictures of weather conditions. Even through Brisbane's light pollution, one of the AWN webcams caught a fireball as it streaked across the sky.

A British meteorite enthusiast spotted a fireball over southern England, the Plymouth Herald reported. Most meteors are grains of dust from passing comets that disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. Larger objects are fragments of asteroids and planets that form fireballs as they streak across the sky before the intense aerodynamic pressure shatters them. If the original meteoroid was large and slow enough, some of the fragments will land on Earth as meteorites. Citizen science projects like the American Meteor Society, the Fireball Recovery and interplanetary Observation Network, and Fireballs in the Sky try to triangulate a fireball’s path in hopes of recovering the meteorites. Think of them as the poor scientist’s sample return mission.

Exploring Deep Space

Australian astronomers helped Chinese high school students study pulsars. Astronomy is a great way to get kids excited about science - especially when they can do real research. Pulsar research is one area where teens can work side-by-side with the pros. I've written about the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Pulsar Search Collaboratory which uses data from the Greenbank Telescope in West Virginia. Pulse@Parkes is run by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization using the historic Parkes Radio Telescope. The students design the observing plans and direct the telescope’s controllers. They analyze the data to search for new pulsars or study the behavior of existing pulsars.

If anyone doubts the value of public participation in science, just send them to the Galaxy Zoo 2015 year-in-review. The original crowdsourced astronomy projects has gone through several iterations over the past eight years. During that time the project’s scientists have published 48 peer-reviewed journal articles. Almost 300 peer-reviewed papers cite Galaxy Zoo’s original publication and 700 papers include the term “Galaxy Zoo”.

Amateur astronomers pursue their hobbies during long, cold nights in empty fields. Newsweek shows how Afghanistan's amateur astronomers face struggles of their own. There is alway a risk that Afghan or international military forces will mistake them for jihadis with a missile launcher. Residents of remote villages with the darkest skies are suspicious of outsiders. But they persevere to bring the enchantment and wonder of the night sky to their fellow Afghanis.

The American Astronomical Society gave the Chambliss Amateur Achievement Award to Daryll LaCourse for his work in exoplanet research. LaCourse contributes to the Planet Hunters citizen science project, but his work goes far beyond classifying transits. He has reanalyzed Kepler data to discover new exoplanet candidates and plays a leading role in the Planet Hunters’ forum.