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.
TL;DR? Jump to:
- Featured News: Space tourism comes to Tucson, Arizona
- Space Makers: Amateur satellites, student rocketry, and 3D printing in space
- Amateurs in Zero-g: Virginia teens controlling robots in space
- Exploring the Solar System: the Queen owns Australian meteorites, crowdsourcing pancake terrain on Mars, China makes lunar data public
- Exploring Deep Space: Crowdsourcing delivers pulsar discoveries, pro-am collaborations deliver black hole discoveries
- Other Amateur Space News: Education programs and amateur astronomy
Space tourism has a new home in Tucson, Arizona. The announcement from World View Experience came the day local politicians signed a deal to build the company's headquarters and manufacturing center. World View justified the deal based on the economic benefit that space tourism and high altitude research will deliver to the region.
Local media provided more of the inside story. NBC affiliate KVOA reported local reactions to the use of public money to support private business, a concern that one supervisor cited as she cast the lone opposing vote. Supervisor Richard Elias explained to the Arizona Daily Star that Tucson-area governments have a long history of supporting private industry, citing the support defense contractor Raytheon received over the past fifty years. The Tucson Sentinel covered the Board of Supervisors’ debate over the deal. While the politicians had some questions about World View’s finances and long-term vision, the potential upside seemed to outweigh the perceived risks.
Hackaday wrote an extended article about Oscar, the first amateur-built satellite. Electrical engineers in what would become Silicon Valley thought they could build a satellite that did more than the Soviet Union's Sputnik. With a friendly launch by the US Air Force, Oscar reached orbit in 1961.
The low success rate of CubeSat projects reflects the technology’s strength, Air & Space Magazine reports. The hardware costs are so low that CubeSat technology lets people build a satellite who never could have before. But space is hard. Experience counts. And with so many newbies making their own spaceships, the failure rate is much higher than the traditional space industry is used to.
Spaceport America supports science education in New Mexico explains CEO Christine Anderson in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed. A virtual classroom system let one thousand sixth graders take part in the spaceport’s science education programs. The state's universities will use Spaceport America as the launch site for their rocket science programs. These are just two points that Anderson cites while trying to justify the money New Mexico has spent on the spaceport. Educational benefits may not satisfy the project’s critics, but it has given momentum to New Mexico’s science educators.
New Jersey high school students can put "Nasa contractor" on their resumes, reports NJdotcom. High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to foster America's modern manufacturing industry by bringing shop classes back to secondary schools. But this isn't your grandfather's shop class. Students learn how to use modern manufacturing tools from computer aided design to 3D printing. Along the way they build spare parts for the International Space Station.
Made in Space announced that it successfully completed the tests of its first zero-g 3D printer experiment. The second-generation Additive Manufacturing Facility will ride into orbit later this year. Nasa will use the 3D printer to support operations on the International Space Station.
One of the first projects built for the University of North Carolina’s Maker-in-Residence program was a DIY telescope. The students have donated the scope to the school’s science library so other students can check it out for an evening of stargazing.
Last year's world rocketry champs, the Alabama teens with RCS Engineering are paying it forward, the Franklin County Times reports. The veterans from last year's Team America Rocketry Challenge are competing in Nasa's Student Launch Initiative (side-by-side with undergrad engineering teams). At the same time the rocketeers are mentoring a team of younger students who will compete in this summer's TARC contest.
Amateurs in Zero-G
The ZeroRobotics global coding contest lets teens in the US, Europe, Russia, and Australia develop software to control the space station's Spheres robots. The finalists' code gets uploaded into the robots which must navigate a virtual obstacle course and perform assigned tasks. International Space Station Astronaut Scott Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko conducted a dry run in preparation for this week’s contest. The Prince William County school district announced that five of the Virginia school district's high school students are among the finalists. They will travel to MIT this weekend to watch a live stream of the space robots in action.
Exploring the Solar System
Finders keepers doesn’t apply to meteorites, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports. By law when a meteorite lands in Australia the chunk of rock becomes crown property. Scientists with the Fireballs in the Sky program found a recently fallen meteorite in the Australian outback. Once they have finished their analysis, they must hand it over.
Planet Four wants you to flag "pancake" terrain in images from Mars. Volunteers with the crowdsourcing project spotted a strange feature in the images of Mars they review. They started talking about it in the project's forum. Now Planet Four’s scientists have created a hashtag for the citizen scientists to use in their discussions. That will let the scientists find all of the pancake terrain images for follow-up research. This is what makes citizen science a powerful research tool - the power of human curiosity.
The China National Space Administration has released the data from its lunar missions to the public, the Planetary Society reports. It is also engaging the public by asking everyday Chinese citizens to propose a payload for its next mission to the Moon.
Exploring Deep Space
Lawrence Livermore Laboratories launched the Sky Viewer, an online visualization of the DECaLS survey. Their objective is to study 40 million galaxies in order to create the largest, most precise measure of the Universe’s expansion. But all that data has another use. The Galaxy Zoo crowdsourcing project has pulled 30,000 of the galaxies for its citizen scientists to classify. The volunteer effort will let scientists study small mass galaxies, galactic mergers, and other aspects of the Universe’s development.
The results are in from the Pulsar Hunters crowdsourcing project. More than 55,000 citizen scientists contributed over 3,000,000 classifications of radio telescope data. One of the candidates has already been confirmed as a never-before-seen pulsar.
Green pea galaxies help understand the early Universe, the Galaxy Zoo team explains. First spotted by citizen scientists contributing to the crowdsourcing project, green pea galaxies have been the subject of professional research ever since. A recent study finds that the intense ultraviolet light emitted from the green pea galaxies helped ionize the interstellar medium - an important step in the evolution of our modern Universe.
Amateur astronomers are essential partners for scientists studying variable stars. The nature of professional astronomy makes it difficult for the pros to make the required long-term, high volume observations. Amateurs, on the other hand, can take as many observations as they want. A team of French amateurs and professionals recently presented their studies of RR Lyrae variable stars. Although smaller than the Sun, a typical RR Lyrae is 40-50 times brighter. The brightness of these stars vary so predictably that astronomers can use them to measure the distance between galaxies. (A much better description is on Wikipedia) The Groupe Européen d'Observations Stellaires collaboration has collected 120 years of RR Lyrae observations to better understand their behavior. They also collect new observations using Very Tiny Telescopes - 135mm photographic lenses attached to astronomical sensors. The team published a paper describing the project and some of its results (arXiv preprint: 1601.02772).
AstroImageJ is a scientific image analysis app that is optimized for astronomy. It’s main purpose is to analyze light curve data for variable star and exoplanet research. Although designed to support professional research, the interface is simple enough for student and amateur use. A new paper documents the latest updates. (arXiv preprint: 1601.02622)
Volunteer data miners helped discover an intermediate-mass black hole, Astronomy Now reports. These objects are the missing link between stellar-sized black holes that form in the modern Universe and the supermassive black holes that lie at the center of galaxies. A team of programmers who hold day jobs at the IT departments of Russian companies helped scientists process data from the public archives of a European space telescope and an American observatory. The Astrophysical Journal published their research (Paywalled paper doi:10.3847/0004-637X/817/2/88, arXiv preprint: 1511.06765)
Other News in Amateur Space Exploration
- The Las Cumbres Observatory will conduct a European workshop to study applications of robotic telescopes in education.
- The Houston Chronicle's review of the “spaceports” being developed around the United States finds few have customers.
- Scientists with China’s virtual observatory, AstroCloud, presented a status update that describes its engagement with the public (arXiv preprint: 1601.03155).
- A team of Indian undergraduate students built a low-cost radio telescope to support local amateur and student research projects (arXiv preprint: 1601.02982)
- The Space Awareness Summer School is a workshop for European science educators that takes a space-based approach to teaching inquiry-based methods, Ireland’s Silicon Republic reports.
- The Death Valley National Park will host MarsFest, a celebration of the night sky and the park’s role in space exploration.
- Indiana’s Link Observatory education outreach programs gives kids hands-on experience conducting astronomy research, the Indiana Star reports.
- Galaxy Zoo's blog listed some of the posters presented at the AAS Winter Meeting.
- Amateur astronomers caught the lunar occultation of Aldebaran using everything from CCD’s to iPhones, Universe Today reports.