Amateur Space Weekly - March 7

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: Russia crowdfunds an amateur satellite, teen rocketeers compete in US and Europe.
  • Space Makers: Idaho undergrads design first satellite to be assembled in space, high schools compete in Nasa rocket contest, new satellite tracking app.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: teens making food for astronauts and zero-g experiments.
  • Exploring Earth: Citizen scientists observe weather, new app crowdsources flood reports in Europe, Jamaica deploys educational seismic network.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Citizen scientists help pros study Mars and the Sun, public reports of meteor fireballs in Scotland and the US.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur observations of a stellar merger, teacher workshop on robotic telescopes, light pollution in Arizona, sources for astronomy outreach.

Featured News

Space Makers

In addition to the featured reports about a crowdsourced Russian satellites and the 2016 teen rocketry season, several stories about people making space hardware appeared in the news last week.

ABC reported on a Pennsylvania high school competing in a Nasa rocket contest. The space agency’s Student Launch Initiative challenges undergraduate and secondary school students to design high-performance rockets. Middle and high school teams must design a reusable rocket that can reach a one-mile altitude and return its payload to the ground intact. The payload itself must collect scientific or engineering data. The eight-month project follows Nasa’s own engineering development process with scheduled reviews during which Nasa engineers evaluate the teams’ progress. The ABC report visited Spring Grove High School, one of the twelve secondary schools in this year’s competition. The boys and girls on the rocket team explain why they enjoy building rockets and what the Nasa competition means for them. The school has raised $21,000 of the $25,000 needed to get the team to Alabama for the final launch-off and have a GoFundMe page to help raise the rest.

Undergraduates at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho are creating MakerSat, the world’s first satellite to be assembled in orbit. MakerSat’s electronic systems will ride to the International Space Station early next year. Astronauts will print the satellite’s frame using the next-generation Made in Space 3D printer. They will assemble and test MakerSat before deploying it from the space station’s satellite launch system. Engineering senior Mitch Kamstra explained in the press release that “printing the frame of the CubeSat while in orbit means not having to design for a high-G launch allowing for the use of a lighter material and a more delicate and optimized design.”

MakerSat will be too small to see from the ground, but many satellites are big enough and shiny enough.  Spacedotcom introduced a satellite tracker app to help space enthusiasts and astrophotographers plan their observing sessions.

Amateurs in Zero-G

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to foster American industry by supporting vocational classes in secondary schools. Many of the schools use modern manufacturing tools to build spare parts for the International Space Station. However schools with culinary arts programs can also join Hunch. The program’s annual contest challenges students to develop a meal that astronauts can eat in zero-g. Spacedotcom reported on the regional finals at Nasa’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. The Paper, a news site serving northern Houston, reported on Oak Ridge High School’s participation in the regional finals at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center.

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. South Carolina’s W.J. Keenan High School is among the schools sending science into space, ColaDaily reports. The students will examine the way microgravity affects the mixture of starches in water. Their project was supported by the Richland One Challenger Learning Center which develops programs to get the region’s kids turned on to science and math.

Exploring Earth

Cocorahs has started its annual March Madness recruting campaign, the Coloradoan reports. The citizen science project began in Colorado after intense local rainfall caused unexpected flooding. It recruits people to measure precipitation levels every day to create a crowdsourced map of rain and snow fall patterns. Even though the measurements are simple and the people doing the measuring have no background in earth science, professionals from meteorologists to emergency planners rely on their data.

America’s National Weather Service sponsors another weather-related citizen science project. Skywarn is a network of volunteer storm spotters who report extreme storm conditions to their regional NWS field office. Weather radar cannot see what’s happening between the radar beam and the ground - a gap that can be several thousand feet. The storm spotters provide meteorologists with essential ground truth that makes storm warnings more accurate.  The Dispatch Argus spoke with a veteran storm spotter about the contribution he makes to his Illinois community.

Researchers have developed an app to crowdsource flood reports, PhysOrg reported. Floodup, available for both iOS and Android, lets European citizens upload reports and photos of floods to the researchers’ servers. The data will let scientists at the Universitat de Barcelona develop more accurate assessments of flood hazards for urban planners and emergency responders. The app also advises users about flood safety and preparedness.

Educational seismographs are inexpensive earthquake detectors that lets students study our dynamic planet in real time. Many nations have programs that recruit schools into national networks. The American Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology hosts a server that aggregates data from the national networks, allowing students to study the way earthquakes are felt around the world. The Jamaican government announced that it will deploy seismographs in schools across the island nation. Fulbright Scholar Katherine Kelly Ellins from the University of Texas, was born and raised on Jamaica and will spearhead the project.

Exploring the Solar System

The Planet Four: Terrains crowdsourcing project recruits citizen scientists to identify geological features in images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera. The volunteers mark seasonal features like “fans” and “blotches” as well as permanent features like craters and channels. Planetary scientist Margaret Landis explains how crater counts will let her place the features at the planet’s south pole on a timeline of Martian history.

A citizen science project will get a view of the Sun’s inner corona that no professional observatory has ever seen, Sky & Telescope reports. A total solar eclipse will cross the United States next year. The Moon’s shadow will take 90 minutes to travel the 2,400 miles (3,800 kilometers) from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina. The scientists, undergraduate students, and amateur astronomers who join the Citizen Cate Experiment will set telescopes along that path to record the eclipse. Their work will produce a 90 minute video of the Sun’s inner corona ranging 1.3 to 2.2 solar radii from the solar surface. Nothing like this has ever been done before. It will help heliophysicists study little-understood aspects of the dynamic interaction between the Sun’s magnetic fields and the plasma flowing from its surface. The project has received 35% of the funding it needs to field 60 observing teams and is looking for sponsors and individual donations.

Most meteors are grains of dust left behind by comets, but sometimes meteoroids the size of a pebble or larger enters Earth’s atmosphere. These larger objects produce more intense meteors, called fireballs, that last longer than typical shooting stars. Public reports as well as dashcam and security camera video let groups like the International Meteor Organization and the American Meteor Society triangulate the meteor’s path. If the original object was large enough, fragments may survive atmospheric entry to land on Earth’s surface as meteorites. On February 29th eighteen people reported a fireball over Scotland. Another fireball on March 4th generated forty-five reports as the meteor passed over southwestern Missouri

Exploring Deep Space

Light from what may have been the collision of two stars in the galaxy NGC 4490 reached Earth in 2011. Observations from amateur astronomers helped researchers in their investigation of the event. Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (Wiyn and Noao/Aura/NSF)

Amateur astronomers still play important roles in stellar astronomy. Observing variable stars is one such role. A star’s light can change noticeably over the course of years, months, or even days. The way that light changes is a function of the star’s internal dynamics as well as interference from stuff orbiting the star. A subclass of variable stars, the transients, are more dramatic. These are the explosive supernovae, novae and other events that create bright bursts visible across the Universe. The light from one of these events reached Earth in 2011. A blue giant star in the galaxy NGC 4490 brightened dramatically, faded, then brightened and faded again. American and European scientists’ research (accepted by MNRAS, arXiv preprint: 1602.05203) investigated the possibility that the event was a stellar merger. Professional observatories could not monitor the event immediately after its discovery as the star was too low on the horizon. They had to wait several months for Earth’s orbit to carry the planet around the Sun. Fortunately, several amateur astronomers measured the star’s brightness and reported it to the Rochester Academy of Science’s Astronomy Section. The non-profit supports amateur astronomy in upstate New York. Volunteers collect amateur observations of supernovae to give the data a permanent home. While not part of the scientific analysis, the amateur observations let the researchers confirm the multi-peak behavior found in similar events.

The International Council for Science’s Committee on Space Research (Cospar) will hold its annual scientific assembly in Turkey this summer. The Galileo Teacher Training Program will be there to conduct teacher workshops. Over the course of six half-day sessions, teachers will learn how to use robotic telescopes to enhance inquiry based science and math education. They will learn how to plan observing sessions using astronomical software, how to schedule online telescopes to make those observations, and how to use the resulting data with astronomy-oriented image processing software. Applications are due by the end of April.

The Vatican Observatory Foundation reviewed sources for astronomy visualization. Amateur astronomer Bob Trembley explains how - from deep space astronomy to planetary exploration to spacecraft simulators - these sources help enhance his outreach

The Arizona legislature may undermine the state’s astronomy infrastructure, KJZZ reports. Electronic billboards are increasingly popular within the advertising industry but the intense light from these signs significantly contribute to light pollution. A 2012 compromise balanced the business needs of advertisers with the dark sky needs of astronomers by limiting electronic billboards to cities far from Arizona’s astronomy centers. A new proposal working its way through the legislature will lift the ban in western Arizona along the border with Nevada and California.