Amateur Space Weekly - February 1

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: The one thing you should read is the story about Bob Stack, a teacher who almost flew on the Space Shuttle Challenger.
  • Space Makers: Rocketeers in Alabama and South Africa.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Colorado students building hardware for Nasa, US/Italian teams win a space robot contest, crowdsourcing astronaut selection, South Carolina space project, and Snapchattin' in zero-g.
  • Exploring Earth: Weather spies save lives, pulling weather data from satellites, and tracking cosmic ray in the stratosphere.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Crowdsourcing aurora reports to improve prediction models.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Crowdsourcing gravitational waves, teacher astronomy research, and a dark sky site in New Mexico.

Featured News

Payload Specialist and teacher Christa McAuliffe (far left) and her crewmates on STS-51L: Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnik, Commander Francis R. Scobee, Mission Specialist Ronald E. McNair, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka. Credit: Nasa

If you read just one thing, it should be this story about a teacher who almost rode on the Space Shuttle Challenger’s last mission. Bob Stack was a finalist in Nasa’s Teachers in Space program with Christa McAuliffe. Reporter Dan England's respectful portrayal of Stack’s experience before, during, and after the space tragedy shows that the seven astronauts were not the only victims.

Space Makers

Schools and after-school programs across the United States are preparing for the start of rocket season. Their teen rocketeers will compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge this spring with a chance to represent the United States in international competition in Britain. The Franklin County Times reports on a local high school’s rocket team. The Alabama kids are learning how to apply the science of rocketry to the reality of building one. They will compete in the regional qualifiers held by the University of Northern Alabama.

Bloodhound SSC, the British attempt to break the world land speed record, has inspired schoolchildren across the UK with its model rocket car competitions. Now kids in South Africa get the rocket car experience. IOL reports that South African high school students will design and build model rocket cars that could accelerate to 150 kilometers-per-hour.

Amateurs in Zero-G

MIT developed the Spheres robots to test spacecraft maneuvering and control. Powered by jets of carbon dioxide gas, the robots zip inside the International Space Station. The 2015 Zero Robotics High School Tournament let students around the world control the robots. Credit: Nasa

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. 9News reports on the Colorado high schools building hardware for the space program. Students at Warren Tech designed a belt that could help astronauts exercise during deep space missions while students at Overland High School are trying to preserve fresh food in microgravity.

The Zero Robotics High School Tournament concluded last week. The 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. The European Space Agency celebrated the US-Italian teams who split the contest championship. While a blizzard disrupted travel to MIT where the US contestants were to convene, the Winchester Star reports, a Virginia team raced to beat the blizzard to Boston. Newsplex reports that another Virginia team chose to camp out at their high school to watch the live video stream from space. The early morning start caused other problems, the West Virginia Gazette-Mail reports, as one student fell asleep halfway through. Fortunately robots never sleep

The European Space Agency’s astronaut selection program wants the public’s help. The Esa Astronaut Centre created an app to test astronauts’ 3D perception skills, but they need to confirm that it works. Normally that would require a bunch of techs sitting at a computer for hours. Fortunately, crowdsourcing lets anyone chip in. The astronaut selection test challenges you to move an object in three dimensions (it isn’t as easy as it sounds). Getting hundreds or thousands of people to “play” the test will give the Esa Astronaut Centre’s scientists the data they need to validate the test for future astronaut candidates.

In space nobody can hear you Snapchat. That’s the lesson Ad Week correspondent Marty Swant learned when he flew on Zero-G’s parabolic microgravity aircraft. He joined the winners of an advertising contest on the heavily modified Boeing 727. The rollercoaster-like flight path creates brief moments of microgravity and even simulates lunar or martian gravity. But Swant and his companions could not resist the need to document their experience on their smartphones.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has helped more than 120 communities send 153 student science projects to the International Space Station. Nearly 50,000 teens took part in the 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. The State visited a South Carolina high school whose experiment will study the way starch and water mix in microgravity.

Exploring Earth

When it comes to crowdsourcing data from the public, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration holds the crown, operating some of the longest-running weather observation networks in the world. The Skywarn program trains people to report severe storm conditions - rain, snow, hail, funnel clouds, and more. Noaa's meteorologists need the public data to fill in the gaps within their sensor networks and radar stations. This story from the Frederick News Post looks at the Maryland-area storm spotters who helped Noaa's meteorologists during the recent blizzard and how the "weather spies" help save lives.

The Group for Earth Observation is a network of radio enthusiasts who receive transmissions from weather and Earth observation satellites. American weather satellites continue to use radio transmitters to send data back to Earth. A backyard satellite dish and some extra hardware is all you need to get the same data meteorologists use. Southgate Amateur Radio News reports that GEO released the back issues of their quarterly newsletter for free download.

High school students in the Earth to Sky Calculus project fly dozens of Near Space balloon missions every year. Unlike many amateur high-altitude balloon projects, this one is doing science. Their balloons carry radiation detectors that let the students track rising cosmic ray intensity over the past year.

Exploring the Solar System

Dr. Liz MacDonald created the Aurorasaurus citizen science project to crowdsource public reports of aurora - the northern and southern lights. The models scientists use to forecast the space weather impacts on Earth are a work in progress. One reason is the relatively few observatories on Earth and in space. Enlisting thousands of people around the world to report an aurora gives scientists "ground truth" - knowledge of what is really happening - to compare to the results of their simulations. Science World Report interviewed Dr. MacDonald to learn more about the project’s science.

Exploring Deep Space

Syracuse University researchers will recruit citizen scientists to search for gravitational waves, the Daily Orange reports. They work on the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (“wave” is not capitalized so they can acronym it aLIGO). The experiment hopes to detect ripples in space-time created, for example, when neutron stars orbit each other closely. The project, launching later this year, will recruit citizen scientists to help train the machine learning algorithm that analyzes the aLigo’s data.

Northern California’s Daily Democrat celebrated a local science teacher who presented research alongside professional astrophysicists at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting. She had joined Nitarp, Caltech’s Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program. Science teachers participating in the program are paired with professional astronomers to conduct a year-long research project. Lee Pruett’s research team studied the relationship between the color of active galaxies and the brightness of the light the galaxies emit.

The International Dark Sky Association designated New Mexico’s Cosmic Campground an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. The Silver City Daily Press explains how local amateur astronomers developed the campground thanks to grants and donations.


Want to learn more? Read these reports about amateur space exploration: