Amateur Space Weekly - February 29

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.

Check out my article about the intersection of Near Space exploration and education:

TL;DR? Jump to:

  • Featured News: Nasa picks amateur CubeSats for free rides into orbit.
  • Space Makers: Teen rocketeers, touring a satellite lab, and a Nasa coding contest.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: High school students prepare curry, pasta and meatballs for astronauts
  • Exploring Earth: Jamaican schools form a seismic network.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Argentine amateurs discover giant asteroid, Floridians discover meteorites in a swamp, amateur observers of planets and the Sun, and conducting Mars analog research in Utah.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Milky Way Project turns citizen science into research, Japanese amateur discovers a supernova, and American amateurs help discover an exoplanet

Featured News: Nasa picks amateur CubeSats for free rides into orbit

Credit: Nasa

While amateurs have been building satellites since the early 1960’s, the CubeSat has lowered the costs so much that anyone can build a satellite for a few thousand dollars. Getting it into orbit, on the other hand, is as difficult and expensive as ever. Nasa’s CubeSat Launch Initiative helps out particularly worthy amateur satellite projects by giving the CubeSat a free ride into orbit. 

Amsat is a volunteer organization that emerged from the original amateur satellite project and has been building amateur satellites ever since. Most of Amsat’s projects support ham radio operators, giving them a way to communicate with other hams via space. RadFxSat-2 is a little different. Amsat partnered with Vanderbilt University to study the radiation environment in orbit. The new technologies developed for the mission and the potential scientific return earned it the top ranking among the twenty finalists.

The North Idaho STEM Charter Academy is not exactly an obvious candidate for a Nasa contract. The school provides a science-centric education and is so new that its oldest students are in 10th grade. CBS affiliate KREM reported from the school as teachers told their students that they will send a satellite into orbit before they graduate. The daVinci mission will give the school’s students hands-on experience with a space engineering project. Its amateur radio signals will reach schools around the world.

Space Makers

YouTuber Tom Scott visited a satellite clean room where he saw the FUNCube-1 amateur CubeSat and Nayif-1 a satellite designed by university students in the United Arab Emirates.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge is a national contest for middle and high school students. It encourages their interest in science and math by letting them apply theory to a real-world project: building a rocket. The TARC champion goes on to represent the United States in competition with French and British rocketry champions.

A team of high school students from Alabama became world champions last year and that may have sparked a rocketry revolution in the southern state. The Shoals Insider reports that Alabama’s participation in TARC has doubled

Robonaut2 on its first day on the International Space Station. Credit: Nasa

Nasa wants coders around the world to improve the vision of its space robots. The space agency’s Robonaut2 uses a pair of video cameras to “see” its local environment. Unfortunately the software that does this only works when the video signals are perfect. Perfection rarely happens in space. If the Robonaut passes from a region of direct sunlight into the dark shadows outside the space station, the video signals become very noisy Nasa set up a contest for coders to design algorithms that will work with the noisy signal. The space agency has set aside $10,000 in prize money for the best code.

Amateurs in Zero-G

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to enhance America’s vocational education programs. The annual Hunch Culinary Challenge gives students in culinary arts programs a chance to create a meal for astronauts. The food must taste good while meeting nutritional requirements. But space adds an extra twist. Their meal has to survive the severe conditions of launch into orbit, have a long shelf life, and be easy to eat in zero gravity. Astronauts can’t be chasing bits and pieces of sloppy joes around the space station.

Schools across the United States have developed vegetable-based entrées for this year’s contest. Regional contests will trim the contestants to ten finalists who will travel to the Johnson Space Center for their final test. Dream Up’s Mariel Rico recounted her experience as a judge for one of the regional contests

Although the contest has gotten some coverage in the general media (Mental Floss, Entrepreneur), most of the coverage has come from local media. The Daily Press reported from the regional contest at Nasa’s Langley Research Center. Several Virginia high schools have teamed up to compete in the contest, preparing dishes like quinoa curry and penne pasta with eggplant and peppers. The Journal Inquirer visited the kitchen of a Connecticut high school refining its recipe for Aegean vegetarian crumble meatballs. The students shared their recipe so you can try it for yourself.

Exploring Earth

Seismographs in Schools is a science education program run by Iris, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. It helps middle and high schools install Internet-connected earthquake detectors to enhance science classes with hands-on projects. Schools can upload their data to servers at Iris and share the data with schools around the world. The Jamaica Observer reports that six schools in Jamaica will install seismographs to form the Jamaican Educational Seismic Network.

Exploring the Solar System

February closed with several reports about amateur discoveries of meteorites, asteroids, and comets. Amateur astronomers in Argentina spotted one of the few remaining undiscovered kilometer-wide asteroids, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. They spotted the asteroid in data from the professional  Panstarrs-1 sky survey. This led them to conduct follow-up observations at Argentina’s Bosque Alegre observatory.

When it isn’t searching for alien civilizations, the Seti Institute helps Nasa track meteor showers. Last week it announced the first results from the Seti Institute's collaboration with amateur astronomers in New Zealand. The amateurs host all-sky video cameras that record bright meteors streaking across the night sky. The recording of a meteor shower on New Years Eve provides evidence of a comet whose orbit intersects with Earth’s. 

While meteor showers are the dusty trails of ancient comets, not every shooting star is that small. Chunks of shattered asteroids regularly enter Earth’s atmosphere - and pieces of them even make it to the surface. Earlier this month a fireball passed over the southeastern United States. Public reports to the American Meteor Society led amateur meteorite hunters to a swamp in Florida, WUFT reports. Two weeks of searching yielded six fragments of the space rock.

The Times-Picayune wrote about an amateur astronomer who studies comets from his backyard observatory. A New Orleans native, he moved to a small town to get a view of space less polluted by the city lights. Amateur astronomers on the Isle of Man went even further to avoid the clouds that pollute their night skies, Isle of Man Today reports. They flew a plane above the clouds so they could see the recent 5-planet alignment.

California students in Earth to Sky Calculus are heading to Indonesia to observe a solar eclipse. This is a practice run for their Near Space balloon project to observe the 2017 solar eclipse from above the atmosphere.

Inverse described the way Nasa’s Juno mission relies on amateur astronomers for pictures of Jupiter. The global views amateurs provide help the scientists plan observations of the giant planet’s atmosphere. You can check it out at the Junocam site.

The potential for human exploration keeps many people looking at Mars. Last year the planners with Europe’s Mars Express mission invited schools around the world to join a special project. During an idle period, they would select targets for the orbiter’s webcam. A guest post on the Planetary Society’s blog explains how teens in Atlanta studied the red planet - and learn lessons about our own. Fox affiliate KDVR visited the Mars Desert Research Station. Volunteers at the Mars Society built the MDRS to conduct analog research projects that help understand how astronauts may explore Mars.

Exploring Deep Space

Infrared images from Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals bubbles in clouds of interstellar dust. Citizen scientists with the Milky Way Project map these bubbles to help scientists understand stellar formation. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin

New research into stellar formation would not have been possible without citizen science. The Milky Way Project’s 35,000 volunteers cataloged “bubbles” in images from the Spitzer infrared space telescope. These bubbles form in clouds of interstellar gas and dust when giant stars burst into life. The stellar wind pushes dust away from these giant stars and concentrates it in the bubble’s “shell”. Scientists believe this generates a new wave of star formation. “The Milky Way Project and ATLASGAL: The distribution and physical properties of cold clumps near infrared bubbles” uses data from the crowdsourced project (arXiv preprint: 1602.06982) to add strengthen the theory that bubbles drive star formation. 

Japan Times reports that amateur astronomer Masakatsu Aoki discovered his thirteenth supernova in January. The kimono store owner collects hundreds of observations every night and scans them for signs of “new” stars. These are the short-lived flashes from stellar explosions. Aoki’s latest discovery, SN 2016C, lies at the tip of a galaxy’s spiral arm.  

The University of Texas announced an exoplanet discovery made possible by amateur astronomers. A pair of exoplanet enthusiasts were processing data from the Kepler space telescope and spotted signs of a planet that the Kepler mission’s software missed. They notified the professionals who conducted a series of followup observations to confirm the discovery. The research is published by the Astrophysical Journal (paywalled DOI:10.3847/0004-637X/818/1/46 or free arXiv preprint: 1512.00483).