Amateur Space Weekly - December 5

Teenage satellite makers, amateur astronomers help study Venus, and crowdsourcing discovery of gravitational waves. 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.

  • Space Makers: Teenage satellite makers in US, South Africa, and Brazil; hundreds of student science projects fly to the stratosphere
  • Amateurs in Space: Connecticut students making hardware for Nasa; Students in California, New Jersey, and Canada conduct microgravity research
  • Exploring Earth: Public earthquake reports help the USGS; crowdsourced reports track fireball over Florida
  • Exploring the Solar System: You can pick where on Jupiter Nasa targets JunoCam; amateur images of Venus help planetary scientists; an Arizona amateur helps scientists study asteroids
  • Exploring Deep Space: Crowdsourcing projects help study binary pulsars, gravitational waves, and variable stars; astronomers turn to Flickr to study a supernova imposter
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Results of the European Space Agency’s public input sessions

Space Makers

JP Aerospace’s 186th flight into the stratosphere carried hundreds of student experiments. The company uses these near space balloon flights to develop technology that may send airships into orbit. Its PongSat program sends student science experiments into the stratosphere free of charge.

Idaho teenagers have designed a satellite that Nasa will launch next year, Motherboard reports. The kids at Northern Idaho STEM Academy pitched their project to Nasa’s CubeSat Launch Initiative early this year - and they won. Nasa will pay for their satellite to ride a RocketLabs launch into orbit next summer. Unlike other student satellite projects, however, the work of building the hardware has been contracted to a space company. The kids have launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the $250,000 they need to make it happen. To learn more, check out my interview with these student space explorers.

Teenage girls in South Africa may get into space earlier, Science Alert reported. They are part of the Meta Economic Development Organisation’s Young Women in STEM Programme. Women comprise only 7% of the South Africans in science and math related careers. Medo hopes to inspire more girls to start down the path to STEM careers by giving them hands-on experience with a satellite project. The students began by building robots and conducting high-altitude balloon flights. Now they are designing experimental payloads to put into an off-the-shelf satellite.

Brazilian middle school students may be the first to get an educational satellite working, Amsat-UK reports. Their satellite, Tancredo-1, will ride on the Japanese space agency’s space station resupply mission later this month. The students attend the Escola Municipal Presidente Tancredo de Almeida Neves in the beach resort city of Ubatuba. The hands-on project is an attempt to get more students prepared to study science and engineering at Brazil’s universities.

Amateurs in Space

A high school in Connecticut is building hardware for Nasa. Students at Platt Technical High School are part of the High school students United with Nasa to Create Hardware (Hunch) program. WTNH interviewed three girls who will build storage lockers and other supplies for the International Space Station. The Hunch program’s director Florence Gold told The Hour that the teenagers’ work was good enough to spend into orbit.

Microsoft highlighted a high school project that will send its Internet of Things operating system into orbit. Students in the Quest Institute’s microgravity research program use the Windows 10 IoT system to run an experiment platform on the International Space Station.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps entire 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. The Toronto Star interviewed Canadian teens whose worm growth research just came back from space. Data could help scientists develop new treatments for ALS. The Union News Daily wrote about New Jersey teenagers competing to send their science into space early next year. The student scientists must go through the same peer review process professional scientists use to get their research funded. Students in a Canadian school district will be conducting space research, the Tri City News reports. Three of the two hundred proposals have been selected for the final review round hosted by the SSEP. 

Exploring Earth

More than two hundred people across the southeastern United States helped track a fireball off the Florida coast. Credit: American Meteor Society

More than two hundred people reported a fireball streaking across the skies over Florida. The American Meteor Society crowdsources the reports to reconstruct the meteor’s trajectory, identifying where in the Solar System it came from and where any meteorites might have landed. In this case, unfortunately, any space rocks would have landed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dozens along the New Madrid fault line report quakes to the United States Geological Survey, the Southeast Missourian reports. The USGS crowdsources these reports to map a quake’s extent and intensity. This is something that its seismic stations cannot do since the sophisticated instruments are often tens or even hundreds of miles apart. The Did You Feel It program helps emergency responders, urban planners, and others concerned with the risks of earthquakes.

Exploring the Solar System

You can target Nasa’s camera as it sweeps above Jupiter. The JunoCam can only take a few dozen pictures as the Juno spacecraft’s orbit brings it close to the giant planet. Rather than make the decision themselves, the mission scientists let the public vote on which features to target. You can go to the JunoCam site now and help pick Nasa’s next great pictures.

Amateur astronomers' pictures of Venus helped researchers study cloud conditions on the second planet (arXiv:1611.04318). As Venus climbs above the horizon in the early morning or early evening sky, amateur use a technique called "lucky imaging" to counter the distortions in our own atmosphere. Some of these images are good enough for planetary scientists to use in their research. In this case Spanish researchers collected amateur images of Venus taken in 2015 right before Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft entered orbit. The relatively high volume of amateur images let the pros prioritize their limited telescope time onobservations that only they could make.

An amateur astronomer shared his experiences studying asteroids with the Fountain Hills Times. Ted Blank conducts occultation observations from his backyard telescope in Arizona. An occultation occurs when an asteroid passes between Earth and a distant star. Astronomers measure the occultation’s duration to determine the asteroid’s size, shape, and even the presence of moons or rings. This is an area where amateurs are a big help. The ranks of professional astronomers are far outnumbered by the number of amateurs who have the time and money to make these low-level observations.

Exploring Deep Space

Thousands of volunteers around the world helped discover a double-neutron star system, the AAS reports. The citizen scientists participate in the Einstein@Home distributed computing project which turns the unused processing power of personal computers into a global virtual supercomputer. 

Project Gaia is a new citizen science project that uses data from Europe’s Gaia space telescope to discover supernovae and variable stars. Three hundred volunteers quickly processed all of the data but check back soon - there will be more work to do.

Scientists published the results of a citizen science project that helps the search for gravitational waves (arXiv:1611.04596). People contributing to the Gravity Spy project help identify “glitches” in data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. Scientists use the results to train machine learning algorithms which in turn generate more work for the citizen scientists. In the end the joint human-computer effort will clean up Ligo’s data and make it easier to discover gravitational waves.

Another day, another clueless crowdfunding project. The founders of Project Blue want to build a space telescope that will search for an Earth-like planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rather than setting a realistic funding goal, however, they are asking the public to donate one million dollars. Halfway through the campaign, they are only 17% of the way there. 

Flickr helps scientists study a supernova imposter (arXiv: 1611.04936). In 2014 a luminous red nova (LRN) burst forth in the galaxy M101. Rather than a stellar explosion, scientists believe it is a supernova imposter created when two stars merge. Russian researchers studying this LRN wanted to know more about the original two stars so they did what any one else would do: they searched Flickr. Amateur astronomers use the photo sharing site as well as more astronomy-focused sites to post their images of galaxies, nebulae, and other deep space objects. The scientists found more than a dozen amateur images captured between 2011 and 2015 that had high enough quality for their research.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The European Space Agency announced the results of its Citizens’ Debate on Space for Europe. Two thousand people in Esa’s member countries attended the public input sessions where they answered questions about the space agency’s programs and took part in scenario exercises. Given that the self-selected attendees were not a representative cross section of Europe, the results need to be read carefully. Space cadets enthusiastically support space programs. The wider populace? Not so much. Esa claims it will use the results “in shaping the Agency’s future space activities and also to continue the dialogue with stakeholders.” Let’s hope the feel-good results don’t mask the reality of public support for space.