Amateur Space Weekly - February 15

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: Crowdsourcing counts of lunar craters
  • Space Makers: Satellite tech enhances STEM education, Japanese satellites support amateur radio, learning about suborbital rocket research
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Artists in zero-g, veggie burgers in spa-a-a-ace, Australia's teen coders control space robots, Oregon teens test slipperiness in microgravity
  • Exploring Earth: Earthquake app and storm-spotters
  • Exploring the Solar System: Schools exploring the Kuiper Belt and a fireball dazzles Southern California
  • Exploring Deep Space: Outreach, astronomy tourism, an amateur achievement award, and more...

Featured News: Crowdsourcing counts of lunar craters

Crowdsourcing plays a growing role in Earth and Space Science. (Check out my feature article about citizen science and earthquakes.) Scientists with MoonZoo published a new research paper that describes the strengths - and weaknesses - of citizen science.

The scientific journal Icarus accepted “The Moon Zoo citizen science project: Preliminary results for the Apollo 17 landing site” for its latest issue (Icarus open access DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2016.01.021, open preprint arXiv:1602.01664). The paper compares citizen scientists’ performance to expert crater counters. It also identifies several issues with the way Moon Zoo processed images, trained its participants, and conducted the subsequent analysis.

This research comes a year after scientists with Moon Mappers published their evaluation of volunteer crater-counters (Icarus paywall DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2014.02.022, open preprint arXiv: 1404.1334).

Counting impact craters lets scientists estimate the age of planetary surfaces. The more craters, the older the surface. Counting craters is not that difficult, but planets are big and have a lot of craters. Giving the job to the public through online crowdsourcing projects like Moon Zoo and Moon Mappers promises to create more complete, more accurate catalogs that scientists can use to do better science.

The MoonZoo analysis highlights a challenge that scientists face when adopting citizen science techniques: the messy data. Scientists on planetary missions develop well-documented processes to collect and process data from orbiting spacecraft. The people participating in citizen science projects, on the other hand, are unpredictable. They have different motivations, knowledge, attention to detail, and levels of commitment. That makes the data they produce difficult to work with.

In the case of Moon Zoo, more than 9,300 people helped mark craters in almost 130,000 images of the Apollo 17 landing site. But few of these people behaved the same way. 73% of these volunteers marked fewer than 10 craters. 17% marked only one. Some of them followed Moon Zoo’s instructions faithfully. Some of them didn’t seem to understand the instructions.

The scientists had to filter the results to those volunteers who marked many craters the right way. That yielded a list of only 134 people and a reduced the number of crater markings by 77%. Yet that concentrated pool of citizen scientists performed as accurately as expert crater counters. The paper’s authors point out that they could never get 134 planetary scientists to count craters.

That is the strength and weakness of citizen science: it produces a lot of data but requires a lot of work. 

Both projects found that the design of their interface was one reason for the volunteers’ poor performance. In an effort to be helpful the public used the interface’s default circle size to mark small craters that should not have been counted. The design of the projects’ training also hurt performance. Participants received a single introductory training before being set loose on the lunar images. Neither project provided follow-up training or feedback to improve participants’ performance. 

Scientists who want to use citizen science must put more effort into designing their systems to factor in the human element. Interfaces must be easy to use without insulting participants’ intelligence. Early training must be followed up with feedback to help people get better. Scientists must be ready to spend extra time understanding the gotchas within the data.

It means more work up front, but the reward is science that could never happen without public participation.

Space Makers

Ardusat uses space technology to advance science and math education. Utah television station KUTV interviewed the non-profit’s Chief Technology Officer Kevin Cocco. He described his company’s Classroom Launch Pack. It includes the same sensors and circuit boards used to build the Ardusat satellites that orbit Earth right now. Students can design experiments to study their own environment. Ardusat’s online Experiment Platform gives the students the tools to analyze their data and publish their report to schools around the world.

Japanese satellites riding into space with the Astro-H x-ray space telescope will carry amateur radio payloads, the Amateur Radio Relay League reports. Two of the satellites will carry message exchange technology. Amateur radio enthusiasts can upload a message to the satellites’ on-board memory which other amateurs can download. The third satellite will let people upload a song which the satellite will broadcast back to Earth.

Amateur rocketeers may be interested in this: the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation will publish a special edition about the scientific use of suborbital sounding rockets. Scientists who work on Nasa’s suborbital research program wrote an introduction that they posted to the open-access arXiv (1602.0233). The paper reviews the history of sounding rockets and describes how scientists use the rockets to conduct astrophysics and heliophysics research. Amateur rockets may not match the 400 kilometer heights that Nasa’s Terrier-Black Brant IX reaches. But the paper may give a rocket-hacker ideas for payloads on their own rocket launches.

Amateurs in Zero-G

Shot on a Russian zero-g aircraft, OK Go's latest video shows the creative potential of space tourism. Credit: OK Go via Facebook

OK. OK. Everyone else is sharing the latest video from OK Go. Why should I be any different? I just want to say that this represents the way amateurs turn space to their own purpose. Nasa and other space agencies regularly conduct zero-g flights like this for research. Commercial operators like Europe’s Air Zero G or the American Zero Gravity Corporation already let the public buy tickets on similar microgravity flights. Suborbital tourism on the horizon from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and XCor Aerospace will expand access even further. But the zero gravity experience won’t be just for rich adventurers. Artists will take advantage of this new outlet for creative expression. Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13 was the first feature film shot in zero gravity. Sports Illustrated sent supermodel Kate Upton on a zero-g flight. Now we have the OK Go video. How long will it be before space isn’t just for astronauts any more?

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) fosters America's economy by fostering vocational education. Students can learn how to use modern manufacturing tools by building spare parts for the International Space Station. Hunch also has a program for schools with culinary vocational programs. The York Daily Record wrote about local kids who want to feed astronauts. The Hunch Culinary Challenge asks students to design a vegetarian meal that not only meets specific nutritional requirements but also can survive the launch into orbit and will be edible in zero gravity. Students at the York County School of Technology created a lentil-barley burger that they hope meets the technical standards and is tasty enough for astronauts.

Earlier this month teens around the world competed to control robots on the International Space Station. They had joined the Zero Robotics High School Challenge, a coding contest open to students in the United States, European Space Agency member nations, and for the first time Australia. ABC reported on the kids from Sydney who reached this year’s finals. The Times of San Diego wrote about a local Californian team that allied with schools in Virginia and Greece to reach the finals

The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program lets middle and high school students send their own science experiments to the space station. The program’s ninth mission to orbit will launch this fall with experiments from 22 communities in the United States and Canada.  A team of three high school students from Eugene, Oregon, won their school’s contest to do science in space, Oregon Live reports. They will study whether a Harvard-developed surface coating will work as effectively in microgravity as it does on Earth.

Exploring Earth

I wrote a separate post about the public participation in earthquake science prompted by the release of MyShake, a smartphone app that reports earthquakes to University of California scientists.

Another way the public can help monitor Mother Nature is by becoming a storm spotter. America’s National Weather Service relies on volunteers to report severe weather conditions because of gaps in the weather agency’s networks of sensors and radar systems. Alaska’s NewsMiner explained how citizens far from the NWS’ offices in Fairbanks make forecasts more accurate. Alabama storm spotters explained another benefit of the NWS training to The Redstone Rocket. Bringing their kids to the training sessions makes their kids more aware of what to do when storms strike.

Exploring the Solar System

Odds are any meteorites that survived the Southern California fireball's passage through the atmosphere splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: American Meteor Society

The American Meteor Society collects public reports of fireballs, extremely bright meteors created by rocks large enough to reach Earth’s surface. A fireball generated more than 320 reports from Southern California.

The Recon project is a collaboration between American schools and scientists to explore the Kuiper Belt. The schools are in small towns that form a line between the US borders with Canada and Mexico. The scientists donate telescopes, astronomical cameras, and other equipment to the schools. Teachers and students use a technique called occultation to measure the shape and size of objects at the farthest reaches of the Solar System. (You can read my interview with the project scientists for full details.) The Lake County Examiner attended a workshop where local students and teachers learned how to set up and use their new telescopes for science.

Exploring Deep Space

Sky & Telescope published two amateur-related stories from last month’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The first covers the AAS’s adoption of the World Wide Telescope project. The open source virtual observatory program is used by educators, researchers, and amateur astronomers. The AAS will help guide the project’s developments to enhance professional astronomy communication. The second story reports on citizen scientist Darryll LaCourse who won the AAS Chambliss Amateur Achievement Award for his work supporting the crowdsourced search for exoplanets at Planet Hunters.

South African amateur astronomer Berto Monard has discovered 107 supernovae from his backyard observatory. Back in 2010 he spotted a “new” star that the astronomical community registered as SN2010da. Soon afterwards astronomers realized that it was a “supernova imposter” - a massive star that flares dramatically. Researchers at the University of Washington have continued to study Monard’s discovery and found that it SN2010da was blasting X-rays into space - something a normal star could not do. They think it may be a neutron star sucking material from a close-orbiting binary companion star.

A story from Britain shows how astronomy tourism can enhance the economies of small towns. The Yorkshire Post reported on this week’s Dark Skies Festival. The North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales are national parks with some of the darkest skies in northern England. The seven-day festival will raise awareness of the two parks’ potential for amateur astronomy. (Go now - rain moves in later this week)

Four stories look at astronomy outreach and the role amateur astronomers play in their communities. The Los Angeles Times published the most uplifting story about Afghanistan’s amateur astronomers. Forced to be resourceful, these amateurs built their own telescopes and have even written a textbook for local schools. The second story comes from Scotland where The Courier reported on the Commission for Dark Skies’ efforts to reduce light pollution. The Northern Echo told the story of an amateur astronomy club whose outreach programs got a boost from a community grant. The final story comes from the US where some of the Hubble Space Telescope’s professional astronomers conduct sidewalk astronomy to introduce the people of Baltimore to the night sky. They are part of the informal Popscope network that grew out of a Canadian outreach project.