Amateur Space Weekly - November 7

Canada’s mock Mars mission, India’s astronomy citizen science project, and an amateur’s take on Martian weather. Every week I recap headlines like these from around the world the feature the growing number of people taking space exploration in their own hands.

  • Featured News: Observing asteroids with Nasa, teachers conducting astrophysics research, citizen science and light pollution, plus more
  • Space Makers: Canadian undergrads on mock Mars mission, US Naval Academy midshipmen building a CubeSat, teen contest to 3D print Mars medical tech, WVU rover team pays it forward, Toronto’s astronaut maker boot camp, Nasa’s CubeSat programs, high altitude research for US undergrads, Florida schools do biology research for Nasa.
  • Amateurs in Space: Canadian high schools send science into orbit.
  • Exploring Earth: Amateurs perform like pros analyzing satellite images, a Jacuzzi of Death in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur images of Martian weather and Jupiter’s storms.
  • Exploring Deep Space: India’s homegrown citizen science project, Citizen science as talent search, supernova discoveries, Australian amateur’s nova discovery leads to lithium discovery, your WorldWide Telescope tours could win AAS prize.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: The League of European Research Universities’ guide to citizen science as a research tool, citizen science can produce higher-impact research than traditional techniques.

Featured News

Space Makers

Students at the University of Western Ontario are joining the Canadian Space Agency in a simulated rover mission to Mars. The rover will actually be in the southwestern United States at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station. The students will control the rover’s exploration from Canada.

Students at the US Naval Academy are building an amateur radio CubeSat, Amateur Radio Relay News reports. HFSat will use high frequency signals to relay communications to mobile ham radio platforms.

Winners of a Nasa rover-building contest paid a visit to a Texas middle school, the Herald Standard reports. The Sample Return Robot Challenge is an effort to develop more autonomous rovers. This year's winning team came from West Virginia University, but grad student Nick Ohi's family is from Brownsville, Texas. He and some friends on the team demonstrated the rover and encouraged students at Brownsville Area Middle School to study science and math.

STEAMLabs announced its Astronaut Maker Boot Camp. The Toronto makerspace worked with scientists and astronauts to develop a 10-week program that gives people a feel for the ingenuity and creativity astronauts must apply when in orbit. While learning 3D printing, coding, and robotics participants will design experiments similar to those conducted on the International Space Station.

Other maker news:

Amateurs in Space

Canada’s Magellan Aerospace described the student-designed research projects sent into orbit. The company supported Canadian participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program which helps communities send middle and high school research projects to the International Space Station. More than sixty-one thousand students in the United States and Canada have participated in the SSEP in its six year history.

Exploring Earth

Citizen Science Today highlighted research that looked at the performance of amateurs analyzing remote sensing images. When looking at pictures of their local neighborhood, the volunteers only performed slightly better than people from around the world. More importantly, professional remote sensing experts performed no different from the volunteers. The research was published in the journal Remote Sensing (open access DOI: 10.3390/rs8090774)

Sometimes its easy to forget that entirely alien worlds exist here on Earth. A toxic brine pool 4,300 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico is ringed by extremophile bacteria and mussels. No amateurs involved… but it’s pretty cool.

Exploring the Solar System

Amateur image processor Justin Cowart shared some unique images of Mars on the Planetary Society’s blog. Cowart mined the European Space Agency’s data archive from the Mars Express orbiter to produce timelapse images of Martian weather. “I’d like to encourage other amateur image processors to dig into the archives and track these types of images down. They show Mars as it really is: a quiet but dynamic world.”

Spacedotcom highlighted some of the work the public has done processing images from Juno’s first orbit of Jupiter. A glitch on Juno shut down its instruments as the spacecraft approached Jupiter in its second orbit, but the mission team hopes everything has been fixed for next month’s close approach.

Exploring Deep Space

Real Astronomy Discovery at Home (RAD@Home) is India’s first crowdsourced astronomy program. It is a uniquely Indian blend of pro-am collaboration’s individual contribution with the online citizen science programs’ scale. Indian universities graduate thousands of engineers and scientists every year, but economic conditions force them into non-scientific jobs. RAD@Home enlists the “deserving but deprived” scientifically-literate population in astrophysics research. The project’s founder Ananda Hota has submitted a paper for the Journal of Astrophysics and Astronomy’s special issue on Indian participation in the Square Kilometer Array (arXiv: 1610.09798). Hota describes RAD@Home and the discoveries that its 69 citizen scientists have made.

Marc Kuchner writing on Scientific American’s blog, explained how citizen science lets ordinary people do extraordinary things. Kuchner is the principal investigator for the Nasa-funded Disk Detective project. More than 30,000 volunteers analyze infrared telescope images for signs of protoplanetary disks around young stars. He highlighted the contributions of some of the more accomplished volunteers, concluding that “a citizen science project run right is a talent search.”

The Supernova Hunters’ email update claimed discovery of “another 33 new supernova candidates”. 

Astronomy Now reported on new research that identified the source of excess lithium. The scientists measured the levels of beryllium in the nova Sagittarii 2015 N.2 to determine that these stellar explosions generate 75% of the lithium in the Universe. Unless you read the image captions in the story or the original press release you would not know that the nova was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer and volcano adventurer John Seach.

The American Astronomical Society launched a contest for the WorldWide Telescope. The AAS took over the WWT after Microsoft spun it out as an open source project. The virtual observatory’s visualization tools make it a valuable resource for astronomical research, education, and outreach. The contest will award prizes for the best examples of these “tours”.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The League of European Research Universities published a guide for researchers planning citizen science projects. Their guidelines focus on fostering a sense of community among the volunteers and scientists working on the project. The LERU also advises institutions to take citizen science more seriously as a research tool.

An analysis of Zooniverse projects finds that citizen science can outperform traditional science (Synthese open access DOI: 10.1007/s11229-016-1238-2). One of the paper’s authors, David Watson, described the findings on the Zooniverse blog. Citizen science projects analyze an order of magnitude more data than traditional research techniques, and generate more high-quality citations in the scientific literature. Watson also calls out the citizen scientists’ serendipitous discoveries that result in unexpected new science.