Amateur Space Weekly - February 22

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 archaeology and citizen science.
  • Space Makers: 21st Century shop class builds parts for Nasa, Cornell's undergrad space engineers.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Quinoa curry for astronauts, California high schools sending research to the space station.
  • Exploring Earth: DIY radiation detector, making space AI smarter, spotting storms for Noaa.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur help study stellar eclipse, astronomy tourism, crowdsourcing the search for gravitational waves and stardust.

Featured News: Space Archaeology and Citizen Science

The Space Shuttle's Synthetic Aperture Radar took this image of the Lost City of Ubar. Discovered in satellite images in 1992, the ancient city has been buried beneath the sands of Oman for thousands of years. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Space archaeology uses satellite images to search for buried sites from ancient civilizations. In the closing decades of the 20th Century declassified spy satellite images and Space Shuttle radar data gave archaeologists their first views of temples overgrown by jungle and Fertile Crescent cities buried under desert sands. [You can read more details in my post “Space Archaeology - exploring ancient history from space”]

Sarah Parcak is an archaeologist who helped pioneer space archaeology. Her book, Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeologists, has become a standard text for a new generation of archaeologists and helped Parcak earn this year’s TED Prize. The $1,000,000 prize lets a visionary individual spark global change. 

National Geographic reported that Parcak will use the prize money to turn citizen scientists into space archaeologists. People around the world will review space-based images to search for signs of ancient civilizations and also to combat the looting that destroys the irreplaceable historical record.

Space Makers

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. A press release explains how Lincoln Technical Institute school and Hunch will teach post-secondary school students modern manufacturing skills. Scott Shaw, CEO of Lincoln Tech, said in the press release: “For our students to know that the work they complete at our campus will soon find its way into space, and to the International Space Station, should energize and excite them about the career path they've chosen.”

A pair of articles from the Cornell Sun highlight how Cornell University’s undergraduates train for a career exploring space. A team of aspiring rocket scientists will compete in Nasa’s Student Launch competition. The year-long contest requires the students to design a rocket from scratch and launch it to a 3,000 foot altitude. Another team will compete in the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge. They must design an automated rover to explore the Mars-like terrain in the Utah desert.

Amateurs in Zero-G

In addition to training a new generation of makers, Nasa’s Hunch program sponsors an annual culinary arts competition for high schools. This year’s contest challenges students to develop a nutritious and delicious vegetarian meal that astronauts can eat in microgravity. ECN Magazine reported on the Virginia high school students who hope their quinoa curry will take them to the finals at Johnson Space Center. Twenty-one high school teams are competing to place among the ten spots in the finals.

The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program lets middle and high school students send their own science experiments to the space station. Last week the SSEP announced the communities that will participate in its tenth mission to orbit. A network of charter schools in southern California will participate in the mission. Both HometownStation and KPCC public radio reported on a visit paid to the schools by the chief scientist at Nasa’s Ames Research Center.

Exploring Earth

National Geographic reports on a citizen-driven program to measure radiation in the local environment. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami near Fukushima left a communication void across northern Japan. As the nuclear plant hovered at the edge of total meltdown nobody knew how much radiation was spreading across the countryside. Scientists with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took matters in their own hands. They quickly built a DIY radiation detector and drove all over Japan to measure actual radiation levels. That detector became the basis for Safecast, a citizen science project that lets the public report radiation and pollution levels.

GCN describes how citizen scientists help improve artificial intelligence software that analyzes images from Earth. Remote sensing satellite operator Digital Globe sells images of Earth from space to industry, researchers, and the media. It also uses those images to power the crowdsourced Tomnod citizen science project. The public can help identify the damage caused by natural disasters or help search and rescue efforts simply by reviewing space-based images. Their input also becomes training data to help machine intelligence algorithms improve.

For all of their sophisticated sensors and radar systems, meteorologists cannot always tell what is really happening on the ground. That’s why weather forecasters rely on the public to report extreme weather conditions. The Daily Light reported from a training class for Texas storm spotters. The National Weather Service’s SkyWarn program enlists hundreds of thousands of volunteers to provide the ground truth its meteorologists need to issue timely and accurate storm warnings.

Exploring Deep Space

The light curve shows the dip in brightness of light from the star system TYC 2505-672-1. The blue data points come from professional observatories. The red data points are amateur observations. Credit: Joey Rodriquez / Vanderbilt University

The study of a star system’s three-and-a-half year long eclipse relied on data from amateur astronomers, explained a press release from Vanderbilt University. A team of astronomers studied the binary star system TYC 2505-672-1. Every sixty-nine years one of the system’s two stars crosses the line of sight between its companion and observers here in the Solar System. An extended cloud of gas and dust surrounding the transiting star blocks much of the system’s light for several years. The researchers combined data from several professional observatories with observations made by the amateur members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. The several hundred amateur observations helped create a more accurate light curve (red dots in the image above) for the scientists to analyze.

The discovery of gravitational waves reinforced Einsteins legacy and promises to revolutionize astronomy. But the search for gravitational waves is not exclusive to the astrophysics at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (Ligo). Two citizen science projects will let anyone help look for bumps in the space-time continuum. You can take part in Einstein@Home right now by donating the unused processing power of your home computer. Mother Nature Network explains how the Einstein@Home distributed computing project creates a virtual supercomputer that may detect the gravitational waves generated by spinning neutron stars. Zooniverse posted a quick note to let citizen scientists know that the Gravity Spy project will let them search the Ligo data for gravitational waves when it launches later this year.

Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland is the latest region to promote astronomy tourism, reports the Lancashire Evening Post. A local amateur astronomer is helping the park develop its four Dark Sky Discovery Sites.

Nasa’s Stardust mission created the oldest crowdsourced citizen science project in astronomy. The mission brought particles of dust back to Earth from interplanetary space. Some of that dust was generated by ancient supernova explosions - quite literally stardust. The laborious process of finding dust particles in the collectors was too time-consuming for a small team of scientists. So they created a virtual telescope and asked the public for help. The project’s monthly podcast updated the volunteer dusters on the latest developments. Researchers are finally ready to examine some of the impact sites identified to identify the chemical nature of the impact particles. In a spin-off from the space project, Alzheimers researchers at Cornell University are adapting Stardust@Home’s virtual microscope system to let the public help analyze brain cells.