Amateur Space Weekly - February 8

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: New research relies on amateur astronomers 
  • Space Makers: Australian DIY satellite, British rocketcars and STEM outreach, an undergraduate Near Space project, and preparing for next-generation amateur satellites
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Students prepare to send their science projects to the International Space Station
  • Exploring Earth: Yacht owners sail for science, and West Virginians learn how to spot weather
  • Exploring Deep Space: amateur astronomers, citizen science, high school astronomy, and astronomy tourism

It took the pros with Nasa's New Horizons mission to take this picture of Pluto's atmosphere, but amateur astronomers took the measure of the dwarf's planet thin air from backyard observatories in Australia and New Zealand. Credit: Nasa/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Featured News: Amateur astronomy and professional research

I reviewed several research projects presented at the American Astronomical Society that relied on amateur observations. The research included a serendipitous discovery of a distant galaxy in an astrophotographer’s galaxy picture to amateur astronomers’ participation in black hole research to new findings from the Galaxy Zoo citizen science project.

Several new papers appeared on the arXiv preprint database that demonstrate the power of amateur astronomy in professional research.

Amateur astronomers in Australia and New Zealand used a technique called occultation to study Pluto’s atmosphere. An occultation is a kind of eclipse that happens when an object in the Solar System passes between Earth and a background star. The steady starlight wavers as it passes through the object’s atmosphere in a way that even amateur telescopes can see here on Earth. The amateur research team measured the thickness and pressure of Pluto’s atmosphere a few weeks before Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft passed the small world.

A team of American amateur astronomers helped astronomers study the transit of asteroid fragments orbiting a white dwarf. A transit is a kind of eclipse. (Yeah. One thing, many names. Don’t get me started on meteors.) In this case small objects, fragments of an asteroid, pass in front of a big object, a white dwarf. A star similar to our own disrupted its planets’ orbits as it entered the final phase of its life. Tidal forces from the white dwarf’s gravitational pull broke apart a large asteroid, leaving fields of smaller fragments. The amateur observations led the team to believe the observed asteroid is a tenth the size of Ceres.

European amateur astronomers helped scientists’ discovery of a hot Jupiter exoplanet. After finding signs of the exoplanet overlooked in data from the Kepler Space Telescope and the SuperWasp exoplanet survey, the scientists used a combination of amateur and professional observatories to study the exoplanet’s transit across its host star. Base on their research, the planet could be a candidate for observation with the James Webb Space Telescope.  

Another astrophotographer’s image yielded a serendipitous discovery of a diffuse galaxy. Scientists noticed a smudge in an Italian amateur’s image of the Andromeda Galaxy. This led to a series of follow-up observations from amateur and professional observatories. The smudge turned out to be a diffuse galaxy that may have as little as 1% as many stars as the Milky Way. It lies in the Pisces-Perseus Supercluster, one of the largest intergalactic structures in our local Universe.

And all because amateurs watch the night sky.

Space Makers

West Australia Today wrote about Australian tinkerer Stuart McAndrew DIY satellite project. He based the spacecraft’s design on the PocketQub standard. The miniaturized version of the CubeSat relies on an extra decade of Moore’s Law to squeeze the same features in an eighth of the volume. OzQube-1 would be Australia’s first amateur-built satellite in decades if it weren’t for one small catch: launching the $1,000 satellite will cost an extra $50,000. McAndrew hopes a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign will carry his project into orbit.

Amateur satellite group Amsat will upgrade its ground terminal standards. The main purpose of amateur-built satellites is to support the world’s amateur radio community. Radio transceivers relay ham radio operators’ signals around the planet. The new generation of amateur satellites in high orbits around the Earth require new microwave transmission techniques. Testing of the technology is underway near San Diego, California.

Bloodhound SSC’s Andy Green wrote about the rocket-building workshops it conducts at schools across Britain. The attempt to set a new ground speed record relies on a fighter jet engine to accelerate the car before its rockets fire. The Royal Air Force loaned the engines to Bloodhound with the proviso that the project conduct a strong education outreach program. The students learn enough rocket science to design and build their own model rocketcars. Some schools have even set world records of their own.

Students at Duke University successfully completed their first Near Space balloon flight, WNCN reports. The fourteen students in an introductory engineering class flew a suite of atmospheric sensors and cameras to 120,000 feet.

Amateurs in Zero-G

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program sends dozens of student experiments to the International Space Station every year. Communities conduct a peer-review selection process to pick the top three research proposals from teams of middle or high school students. An expert panel then selects the best project to send into orbit. Schools across the United States and Canada are preparing for the SSEP’s Mission 8 and Mission 9 will launch this year.

Teens in Traverse City, Michigan, will send an algae experiment into orbit, the Record-Eagle reports. The 10th graders settled on algae for its potential use as food or fuel stock on future deep space missions. Four hundred students took part in Bullis High School’s space program, the Connection reports. The final team, a pair of 10th graders, will test the use of bacteria to purify water.

Exploring Earth

A new deal will match researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography with the yacht-owning members of Seakeepers. Budgets and staffing limit the number and frequency with which scientists can collect on-site data. Now oceanographers can ask civic-minded yacht-owners to collect samples or record data as they sail. “This agreement provides a way for citizens—yacht owners—to participate in scientific research in a meaningful way,” said Scripps scientist Bruce Appelgate in the press release. 

The Preston County Journal wrote about a workshop to train weather spotters in West Virginia. Weather agencies have relied on public weather reports for more than a century. Weather can change dramatically over short distances. An official weather station may report clear skies while severe weather floods communities a few miles away. Weather radars get less accurate the further the signal travels from the tower. Networks of volunteer weather reporters like Cocorahs help fill in the gap by recording precipitation, winds, and other weather data.

Exploring Deep Space

California amateur astronomer Bill Goff contributed to black hole research, the Ledger-Dispatch reported. He and a other amateur astronomers around the world helped Japanese researchers study V404 Cygni’s black hole. Goff made more than 2,500 observations from his personal observatory in Northern California.

A blind Canadian amateur astronomer opens his personal observatory to the public, the Chronicle Herald reports. Southwestern Nova Scotia’s certification as a UNESCO-Starlight Tourist Destination attracts astronomy tourists to the region’s dark night skies. Tim Doucette opened his Deep Sky Eye observatory to give the tourists and locals access to large amateur telescopes. 

The Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program matches secondary school science teachers with professional astronomers in a year-long research program. The teachers often let their students take part in the research to get a taste for real-world science. My Suburban Life reports on Illinois high school students who presented their research at the American Astronomical Society’s Winter Meeting.

Gadgette interviewed Galaxy Zoo moderator Alice Sheppard about the power of citizen science. Sheppard fosters community conversation in Galaxy Zoo’s Talk forum. Several scientific discoveries emerged from these forum discussions.