Amateur Space Weekly - March 28

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: Nasa competition may lead to stratospheric airships
  • Space Makers: Educational cubesats, rocketry, and Near Space balloons
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Colorado vocational school builds stuff for Nasa
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourced and educational seismology, New York middle schools' stratospheric research
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur Mars observations leads to new research
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur astronomy project discovers proto-planetary systems, a new crowdsourcing project looks at warped galaxies
  • Outreach, Tourism, and More: Teachers to fly with Nasa, astronomy in Australian primary school, light pollution in Iowa, Ethiopia's amateur astronomers foster development, and a new telescope museum in Japan

Featured News:

Space Makers

The Huffington Post’s Education blog reviewed the small but growing role of model rocketry and satellite-making in primary and secondary school education. Colorado Public Radio looked at one of those technologies: the CubeSat. In an interview with the Fiske Planetarium’s director Doug Duncan the report explains how the CubeSat began as an educational platform to let university students experience a space project. Now a satellite designed and built by grade students is waiting to be released into orbit by astronauts on the International Space Station.

The University of Northern Alabama conducted its first Rocketry Challenge, the Franklin County Times reports. A regional qualifier in the national Team America Rocketry Challenge, the event culminated work throughout the school year to foster teens’ interest in science and engineering. Last year’s national rocketry champions came from the region and inspired a wave of students to enter this year’s contest. Students across northern Alabama attended rocket-building workshops and designed their own model rockets.

The University of Florida Oracle wrote about the team of undergraduate engineering students building a rocket for Nasa. They are part of the space agency’s Student Launch Initiative, a year-long program that mimics a Nasa development program. Students must clear a series of design reviews conducted by Nasa engineers and program managers. The rigorous approach is important because the students must design and launch a high performance rocket that climbs one mile above Earth’s surface. The final flyoff is April 13-17 at a farm near Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Several examples of educational Near Space ballooning appeared in the British press last week. Twenty students at the Rishworth School sent a balloon nearly 107,000 feet into the stratosphere, the Yorkshire Post reported. The school’s computer teacher, Peter Bell, explains how the project gave the students a real-world application for the Raspberry Pi and BBC micro:bit. Students at Forest View Primary School didn’t quite set the record for the highest paper airplane flight, The Forester reported. They had hoped their Near Space balloon would release the paper airplane over 108,000 feet above Gloucestershire but the balloon burst only 82,000 feet into its flight. Science students at The Academy Grimsby used Near Space balloons to study the atmosphere, the Grimsby Telegraph reports. Their flight into the stratosphere was made possible by Sent Into Space, a company that specializes in educational high-altitude balloon projects.

Amateurs in Zero-G

303 Magazine wrote about the high school students at a Colorado vocational school who work for Nasa. They are part of the High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware program. 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.  Warren Tech is one of the more advanced schools in the Hunch program. Its students have developed zero-g experiments, flown on Nasa’s vomit comet, and sent research to the space station.

Exploring Earth

Nearly 870 Hawai’ians reported feeling a magnitude 4.6 earthquake on the big island. The US Geological Survey crowdsources these reports to get a quick snapshot of a quake’s extent and intensity. The Did You Feel It website often receives the public reports minutes before the USGS’ servers finish processing data from its network of seismic stations. Even more importantly the descriptions of the quake’s effects give seismologists data that they could not get any other way.

The Jamaican government announced that it has set aside $1.24 million to deliver seismology training to Jamaican science teachers. Schools across the island nation will install seismographs this summer as part of the Seismographs in Schools program. The students will be able to measure local earthquakes as well as tremors from the other side of the world. They will also share and compare their data with seismic readings from schools in other countries as part of the global Seismographs in Schools network.

New York eight graders are among the students whose research will fly into the stratosphere, the Eagle News reports. Their school is one of ten chosen to fly on the Perlan 2 glider as it flies into the stratosphere. The students used a CubeSat frame to house their study of the effect radiation, temperature, and pressure has on seedlings and slime mold. Time Warner Cable News also reported on team of New York sixth graders whose experiment will look at how well mosses grow in the Mars-like conditions of Near Space.

Exploring the Solar System

Back in 2012 a group of amateur astronomers spotted something strange while observing Mars: a glowing cloud rising above the terminator, the dividing line between day and night. It sparked a three year research project that culminated in a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Nature (behind paywall DOI: 10.1038/nature14162). The research team could not reach a solid conclusion about the cause of the plume - the plume was much higher above the surface than any cloud seen before. It was also higher than winds can carry dust. The Martian magnetic field is so weak that an aurora was thought unlikely. New research (open preprint arXiv: 1603.05906) explains why an aurora is not such a crazy idea. The scientists used data from Europe’s Mars Express probe which was on the other side of the planet at the time the plume appeared. A coronal mass ejection blasted from the Sun’s surface had arrived at Mars right around that time. They also found that the plume rose above a region of Mars that has a stronger magnetic field and that the conditions match a similar plume recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997. The evidence is not strong enough to say conclusively what caused the plume. What is clear is that, despite the armada of spacecraft orbiting Mars, amateur astronomers still have a way of contributing to planetary science.

Exploring Deep Space

A British amateur astronomer’s scientific project made headlines in the Eastern Daily Press. Michael Poxon, a retired web designer, is a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Despite its name the AAVSO is a global organization that collects amateur observations of variable stars - stars that exhibit periodic changes in brightness. These changes may be intrinsic to a star as it expands and contracts or they may be due to a orbiting objects. UX Orionis is a star that seemed to be an Algol-type of eclipsing binary star system, but its variability was really due to a disk of cloud of dust surrounding UX Orionis. It is actually a Young Stellar Object a star with a yet-to-form planetary system. Early last year Poxon proposed an observing campaign to see how many Algol stars are, like UX Orionis, actually Young Stellar Objects (Journal of the AAVSO, vol 43, 2015 - PDF). He assembled a team of amateurs from around the world who focused their observations on these stars and identified an initial batch of candidates. Last week Poxon received news from an Argentinian astronomer whose infrared observations confirmed that one of those stars is a young planetary system.

Another story involving amateurs and Argentina comes from the Disk Detective crowdsourcing project. An Argentinian citizen scientist traveled to the El Leoncito Astronomical Complex (Casleo) to help a professional astronomer conduct follow up observations. Disk Detective is a Nasa-backed project to identify Young Stellar Objects in data from the Wise infrared space telescope. The classifications identify potential YSO’s which require follow-up observations from a range of professional telescopes, including spectrographic observations at Casleo to confirm the presence of a dusty disk.

Project Poppin Galaxy is a new galaxy-centric crowdsourcing project launched on the Zooniverse network. Citizen scientists review edge-on images of galactic disks to determine whether the spiral arms twist up or down. Mapping the warped galaxies will let scientists at Korea’s Yonsei University study the interaction between galaxies.

The Pantagraph wrote about the Illinois educators Nasa picked for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. After taking a graduate-level astronomy course the teachers will join professional astronomers aboard Sofia, Nasa’s telescope-bearing 747.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

An Australian primary school teacher uses astronomy to inspire his students, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Paul Floyd organizes Cosmic Star events which includes lectures from visiting scientists, planetarium shows, and stargazing sessions. Held four times a year, the Cosmic Star events give Floyd’s students a hands-on experience that goes beyond the traditional classroom.

The Gazette reports on a growing disconnect between public utilities and amateur astronomers in Iowa. Light pollution has become so rampant that few people can see the Milky Way any more. Amateur astronomers, environmentalists, and others concerned with the effect of light pollution have advocated replacing traditional street lights with better designed LED lamps. Iowa utilities have begun replacing their street lights but with extremely bright LEDs that could make the situation worse.

The Guradian reported on the role Ethiopia’s astronomy community is playing in their country’s development. Private citizens funded the country’s first observatory which is now giving students an opportunity to pursue careers in the sciences.

Amateur astronomers in Japan have opened a telescope museum to celebrate Kagawa Prefecture’s dark skies, the Asahi Shimbun reports. The museum houses more than 200 telescopes, some of them more than 120 years old. While most of the telescopes are truly museum pieces, some ‘scopes will be available for night sky viewing sessions.