Amateur Space Weekly - January 2

A white dwarf star at the edge of the Triangulum Galaxy blasted a shell of gas into space 3 million years ago. The light arrived at Earth on Christmas Day but the first person to spot it was not a professional astronomer. French amateur Emmanuel Conseil spotted the stellar explosion in images he made with the Slooh online telescope service.  Credit:  Slooh

A white dwarf star at the edge of the Triangulum Galaxy blasted a shell of gas into space 3 million years ago. The light arrived at Earth on Christmas Day but the first person to spot it was not a professional astronomer. French amateur Emmanuel Conseil spotted the stellar explosion in images he made with the Slooh online telescope service. Credit: Slooh

The Week in Amateur Space Exploration is back after a holiday hiatus. As I wrap up the final news of 2015, the new year is shaping up to be a banner year for amateurs in space. Students in Europe, Canada, and the United States are about to take control of robots on the International Space Station. The competitive rocketry season is ramping up as teams prepare their model rockets for the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the UK Aerospace Youth Rocketry Challenge, and Le Rocketry Challenge. Amateur astronomers can plan their year with David Dickson's calendar of astronomical events on Universe Today. The resumption of US resupply launches to the International Space Station means teens around the world will send experiments into orbit with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. All of this and more to come as the new year unfolds.

  • Featured: Celebrating Amateur Astronomy
  • Space Makers: Educational model rocketry in Australia and India, amateur satellites, and exploring Near Space
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Sending teen science projects into orbit back on track
  • Exploring Earth: Canadian weather spotters help the pros, citizen scientists help improve climate models
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur astronomers help track asteroids, citizen scientists search for comets in the Main Asteroid Belt
  • Exploring Deep Space: French amateur astronomer discovers Christmas Day stellar nova, 24 months of citizen scientists’ search for galactic black holes

Celebrating Amateur Astronomy

Several reporters closed the year with stories about amateur astronomy.

A French amateur astronomer discovered a nova explosion in the Triangulum Galaxy on Christmas Day. Emmanuel Conseil used the Slooh online telescope service to capture images of the galaxy (pictured at the top of the page). He noticed a “new” star in his Christmas Day images that wasn’t there the day before. Scientists confirmed that it was a nova, the sudden blast of material from the surface of a white dwarf star. A call went out to professional observatories around the world to collect data on the cosmic explosion.

CNN looked at the astronomy village of Deerlick in eastern Georgia. Although only 2 hours away from Atlanta, the skies are dark enough for the residents to get spectacular views in their telescopes. The Lancashire Evening Post wrote about an amateur astronomy club in Euxton that plans to make their observatory a centerpiece of the community. Programs will enhance science education at local schools and help attract astronomy tourists to the area. The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center attracted more than 11,000 students and teachers to the big island of Hawai’i last year. The cost of transportation - especially between islands - is the biggest obstacle schools face when planning a visit to the center of Hawai’ian astronomy. Big Island Now reports that Japan’s Subaru Telescope donated $7200 to the center to subsidize programs for Hawai'ian students.

Space Makers

Model rocketry is a thrilling yet safe way to give students hands-on experience with an engineering project. They get to apply their classroom physics and mathematics lessons and watch as their work launches into the sky. Australian Teacher Magazine described how teenagers use wind tunnels to design their own model rockets. The Times of India reported from Zirakpur where a rocket festival that let hundreds of Indian teens build and launch their own rockets. As 2015 came to a close, several newspapers celebrated the Alabama teenagers who became global rocket champions.

Of course model rocketry isn’t just for kids. It is a hobby with a seven decade history of safety for adults as well. The Providence Journal covered a launch event hosted by the Rhode Island Model Rocket Association. One of the rocketeers explained his hobby's draw: “You make something, and then to prove that it works, you have to fly it.”

While amateur rockets can’t reach orbit, amateur-built satellites can. More than 60 of the 1,300 operational satellites orbiting the Earth right now were built by amateurs. These satellites include radio transmitters that let ham radio operators communicate with each other around the world. Satellite Today described how European startup Leaf Space is protecting the amateur satellite radio spectrum. The crowdfunded KickSat satellite project raised almost $75,000 in 2012 to build circuit board satellites. These “Sprites” reached orbit in 2014 but their carrier satellite failed to open and the project burned up in re-entry. As 2015 came to a close, the KickSat team took delivery of their second batch of Sprites that they hope to launch in 2016. Amateur satellite enthusiasts can play important roles during emergencies as their radios are often the only means of communication. Undergraduates at Virginia Tech are building an amateur radio transceiver that the US Air Force will host on a geosynchronous satellite. Ham radio operators in most of North America will have easy access to the satellite - especially during natural disasters when cellphone towers are out of action.

An archaeologist’s team of volunteers are making their own pressure suit that will let them survive in Near Space, PSFK reports. Meteorologists and space scientists regularly send scientific instruments into this region of the stratosphere 30 kilometers above Earth’s surface. Dr. Cameron Smith and his team at Pacific Spaceflight want to soar into Near Space to study the upper atmosphere directly. 

Hobbyists send their own balloons into Near Space to take pictures of Earth beneath the inky blackness of outer space and exercise their amateur radio skills. Australian Andy Nguyen’s picoballoons carry solar powered radio transmitters into the stratosphere where they drift around the globe. Southgate Amateur Radio News reported on Nguyen's latest attempt. Despite equipment issues, ham radio enthusiasts around the world have been able to track the balloons' progress.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps middle and high school students around the world send science projects to the International Space Station. Ten of thousands of students have taken part in SSEP-supported space projects, but that came to a screeching halt after both Orbital/ATK and SpaceX rocket explosions stopped the companies’ space station resupply missions. Now that both have returned to flight, schools are getting ready to do science in space again. Buffalo News wrote about a team of middle school students who, inspired by science fiction film The Martian, will grow potatoes in zero-g. Public radio station WBFO broadcast its own story about the all-girl team. The Santa Monica Daily Press wrote about California middle school students who lost their experiment on the SpaceX launch accident. Now in high school, they plan to see their work go into space early this year.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space manages the US laboratory on the International Space Station. It created a pilot project to send more advanced teen research into orbit. The Journal-Topics wrote about the Chicago-area teens taking part in the BSA Space Station National Design Challenge. They will send e.Coli bacteria to the space station to study the effect of microgravity on gene expression.

Exploring Earth

Professional meteorological stations use sophisticated technology to track the weather. But there's a price. They cost so much to operate that weather agencies must space them dozens or even hundreds of miles apart.  Weather happens on a much smaller scale which is where amateur weather spotters come in. Rainfall and snowfall data collected by volunteer networks like Cocorahs are an invaluable resource for meteorologists, emergency planners, and climate scientists. 

The Western Producer wrote about Canadian Cocorahs volunteers whose weather reports helped meteorologists and emergency planners understand flood risks. The CBC reported on Cocorahs volunteers in Canada’s Atlantic provinces whose data helped scientists analyze recent storms.

While Cocorahs relies on simple rain-collection gauges, modern technology lets the public collect a wide range of weather data. Professional meteorologists crowdsource the public data to improve their own weather forecasts. Before the holidays PC Magazine reviewed the Davis Instruments Weather Box. Mounted outside your home, this small solar-powered box measures “temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, UV radiation, barometric pressure, and rainfall data.” The data flows wirelessly to your personal computer which relays it to the professionals’ weather databases.

Another crowdsourcing project, Old Weather, lets anyone help improve climate science. Digitized copies of ships’ logs dating back to the 1750’s record weather conditions that would help climate scientists refine their models. Computers cannot read the handwritten logs which is where the citizen scientists come in. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration created Old Weather to get the public’s help transcribing these logs into a unique climate database. The Christian Science Monitor wrote about the science behind the project and the insights that the historical records could provide.

Exploring the Solar System

Amateurs play a crucial role in tracking asteroids. Professional observatories make most of the new asteroid discoveries. Determining an asteroids orbit, however, requires dozens of follow-up observations. There just aren’t enough professional observatories to do that for the hundreds of thousands of known asteroids. Fortunately, there are a lot of amateur astronomers. The Northwest Indiana Times wrote about Purdue University Calumet undergraduates who tracked asteroids for an introductory astronomy class.

Sometimes the images collected by professional telescopes catch asteroids and comets by accident. Comet Hunters is a new citizen science search for comets in the asteroid belt. Professional astronomers have only found ten of these main belt comets over the past two centuries. Citizen scientists, however, can do what the professionals can’t. The Comet Hunters could discover dozens or hundreds more.

Amateur exploration of the Solar System doesn’t just happen through a telescope. JP Updates wrote about a father-son team who spent Chanukah simulating a mission to Mars. They stayed at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah. There they took part in a two-week expedition that tested exploration technologies that humans may use on their first journey to the red planet.

Exploring Deep Space

Radio Galaxy Zoo celebrated the second year of its citizen science search for galactic black holes. Over the past 24 months, the project’s volunteers have done work that would have taken professional astronomers 57 years to complete. Even then, the citizen scientists are only halfway through the full dataset.