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: Does maker-centric education need more focus on safety?
- Space Makers: Rocket contests, rover contests, Zoidberg grabbers, and near space projects
- Amateurs in Space: ULA reserves CubeSat launches for universities, ASU creates even smaller FemtoSat standard, secondary school microgravity research
- Exploring Earth: Climate science in the classroom, ground truthing weather radar and climate satellites, crowdsourcing signs of rising sea levels
- Exploring the Solar System: Pro-am observations of Neptune, crowdsourcing Mars science, and Canada's aurora-spotters
- Exploring Deep Space: Amateurs make 29% of supernova discoveries, an open source cosmic ray detector, more than 87,000 galaxy images await your analysis
- Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Near Space tourism's future gets murkier
Despite the sad news from California, the safe practice of model rocketry remains a vital piece of the STEM education landscape. Secondary school students compete in annual competitions in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom for the chance to represent their nations in international competition.
The Team America Rocketry Challenge's regional qualifying rounds wrapped up at the beginning of the month. The contest requires middle and high school teams to design a rocket that can carry two raw eggs 850 feet in the air and return them unbroken to the ground within 44-46 seconds. Local media covered the final attempts by aspiring rocketeers to meet the qualifying standards:
- Texas teens experimented with different padding materials to protect the eggs (Valley Morning Star)
- A California school has sent teams to TARC six years in a row (San Diego Union Tribune)
- Virginia girls hope to return to TARC for one last time (Mars Generation)
- Design, engineer, and teamwork define Colorado teens’ rocket experience (Durango Herald)
On Friday TARC released the hundred-and-one teams that made it to the finals. (No press release yet, just a PDF of the list) Texas and California tied for the largest delegation with 18 teams each. Alabama’s national championship team returns for another run at the title. In total 23 states and the United States Virgin Islands will send teams to the TARC national competition outside Washington, DC.
Secondary school teams that rank highly in the Team America Rocketry Challenge can get invited to compete alongside undergraduate teams in Nasa’s Student Launch Initiative. Their goal: to launch a self-built high performance rocket one mile into the air. This caps a year-long development process that mirrors Nasa’s own. The teams had to submit their progress to a series of review panels that included the Preliminary Design Review, Critical Design Review, Flight Readiness Review, and the Launch Readiness Review. The university teams also have a chance to compete in the Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge where they demonstrate the ability to load a geological sample into a rocket for launch. This year’s contest gathers nearly 50 teams from 22 states to an Alabama farm on Wednesday. The media coverage include reports on undergraduate teams from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (The Avion) and the University of Central Florida (Central Florida Future). However the York Daily Record also covered Spring Grove High School’s attempt to rocket a mile into the sky.
The Human Exploration Rover Challenge, another of Nasa’s educational competitions, wrapped up this weekend. The teams had to design a human-powered buggy that can navigate a simulated planetary landscape. And since this is supposed to be a buggy transported to another world, the entire design must fold down to a five-foot-on-a-side cube. In a Technology Challenge, the wheels must be entirely built by the students and have to drive over loose, sandy soil as well as jagged, rocky terrain. Nasa announced the winners today. Purdue University - Calumet won the university division as well as the Technology Challenge. Puerto Rico’s Rafaelina E Labron won the high school division. Press coverage last week highlighted the anticipation among university teams from India (Indian Express) and Oklahoma (News OK). Nevada TV station KOLO welcomed home the third-place finishing high school. Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology has been in the top three for each of the past three years.
Undergraduate students at Boise State University will build a Zoidberg-inpired device for Nasa, the Arbiter reports. The Microgravity Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (arbitrarily acronymized to Micro-g NExT) challenges undergraduate teams to develop grabbers, coring devices, spanner booms, anchors, and rock chippers. The students get career enhancing hands-on experience with a Nasa engineering project and the space agency gets to see creative approaches to its real-world problems.
A journey to the edge of space costs even less which makes it a popular choice for space enthusiasts and science educators. Nasa scientist and science teacher Dr. Tony Philips works with high school students to send space weather balloons into the stratosphere. Earth to Sky Calculus measures radiation levels and cosmic ray impacts. They fund the program by selling a $500 sponsorship for each flight. Seattle TV station KOMO documented their sponsored flight. While they posted the full 2.5 hour mission video, the 4 minute edit is more digestible.
A British primary school launching a balloon into Near Space, The Visitor reported. Teachers at Morecambe Bay Primary School used the balloon flight to frame a two week program on Space and Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Educational outreach company SentIntoSpace assembled the balloon and conducted the launch which was sponsored by a local hotel whose mascot was the balloon’s “astronaut”. Unfortunately, The Telegraph reported, Sam-the-dog fell off during re-entry, sparking a Yorkshire-wide search.
In other Near Space news, the Washington state girls who sent a balloon into the stratosphere will attend this week’s White House Science Fair, reports Geekwire. The Richmond Daily Register ran a story about Kentucky 9th graders whose semester long Near Space project took a hands-on approach to science education. Canada’s National Post busted the myth that helium is in short supply. The boom in natural gas and oil production extracts so much helium that half of it gets dumped into the atmosphere.
And finally, Teachers in Space is giving educators a chance to work as the ground crew for educational CubeSats that will fly into the stratosphere. The Perlan II stratospheric glider will ride air currents along the Andes to rise higher than any crewed aircraft. Over the course of several flights the Perlan II will carry a dozen student-designed experiments experiments. The volunteers (who must pay for the opportunity) will travel to Argentina where they will swap the experiments from the glider’s research racks.
Amateurs in Space
United Launch Alliance will reserve at least one spot for university-based CubeSats on every launch it conducts. The original CubeSat standard was originally intended to give undergraduate students a complete end-to-end experience with a space project. Traditional space missions require decades to develop and operate. A student could complete both an undergraduate and doctoral degree program before a spacecraft entered orbit, much less returned data. CubeSats’ capabilities have grown over the past fifteen years to the point that competition between government and private sector projects are driving the CubeSat launch prices into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. ULA’s CubeSat Launch Program partially addresses the problem by guaranteeing places for educational projects from American universities. The projects must be open to the entire university community rather than a handful of elite students. The projects mission can be scientific, technological, or educational. And one fourth of the evaluation depends on the project team’s planned outreach to local primary and secondary schools.
Amateur satellite makers will get cheaper access to space thanks to the FemtoSat standard, Arizona State University announced. The FemtoSat shrinks the size of a fully functioning satellite to a 3 centimeter on a side cube. In theory that would shrink the cost of launching a satellite into orbit to $3,000 (or $1,000 if released from the International Space Station). The hardware itself would only cost a few hundreds of dollars. Could this usher in the age of the million satellite market?
Last Friday’s launch of the SpaceX 9 marked several milestones. It was SpaceX’s first resupply mission to the International Space Station since its “launch mishap” last June. It was also the first time a reusable first stage landed on an ocean-going barge. More importantly for my readers, the Dragon capsule carries nearly two dozen experiments designed by teens from the United States and Canada. Most of these experiments will arrive on the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program’s seventh mission into orbit. Originally twenty three of the mission’s twenty-four experiments had been on board the fateful June launch. The students had to rebuild their work for their second chance at space. The Post and Courier wrote about Palmetto Scholars Academy’s doubly-bad luck. Their experiment was supposed to ride into space in October 2014 aboard the Antares rocket, but it exploded a few feet above the launch pad. Then their experiment fell into the drink on the June SpaceX launch. But third time’s the charm. Their investigation into the growth of tin whiskers on soldered electronics can now move forward.
- Florida elementary school investigates cotton seed growth (Tampa Bay Times)
- Tennessee middle school students’ study of antibiotics (WBIR)
- North Dakota middle school students evaluation of corrosion (Inforum)
- Oregon teens explore protein folding in zero-g (Blue Mountain Eagle)
- Colorado elementary school’s students study ladybug development in space (The Denver Channel)
But the most important student experiment will ride a future SSEP mission: the State University of New York at Buffalo reports that local middle school students plan to grow potatoes in space. Science the spuds out of it, kids!
Science Friday hosted an online panel discussion about bringing climate change science into the classroom. The main page lists the panelists’ recommended resources and the one-hour conversation is on YouTube.
Youth Learning as Citizen Environmental Scientists will renew its $30,000 grant to SciStarter’s Smap Project. The program enlists schools to provide “ground truth” for a Nasa Earth science mission. Orbiting Earth, the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission uses sensors to measure moisture in the ground below. But these are indirect measurements based on light reflected or emitted from the ground. Ensuring the measurements match reality requires someone to test actual moisture levels. The mission scientists can’t do it themselves so they turn to citizen scientists for help. SciStarter’s SMAP Project coordinates the activity and reports the data to Nasa.
The National Weather Service also needs citizen scientists to report ground truth. As KETR reports, the weather agency’s doppler radar is 12,000 feet up by the time it reaches northeastern Texas. Meteorologists cannot tell what is really happening beneath the beam which makes their forecasts and warnings less reliable. The volunteers participating in the Skywarn program report severe weather conditions to local NWS field offices to fill in the gap.
As climate change raises sea levels coastal areas can expect flooding to increase especially during high tides. The KingTides project asks people to post pictures of high tides to social media. American researchers have created dedicated KingTides groups in California, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington. Australia and New Zealand have KingTides Projects as well.
Exploring the Solar System
A collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers posted a study of Neptune’s brightness variations (arXiv: 1603.00518). The large mountaintop observatories and space telescopes are too busy to conduct regular observations of the planets. Fortunately amateur telescopes can produce useful data.
Citizen scientists can help plan next round of HiRise imaging. Images from Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter power the Planet Four:Terrains project’s study of seasonal features at the Martian south pole. As the scientists plan for the missions next imaging campaign, they need to get as much data out of the existing images as possible. The spectrographic and photometric observations gathered by the team indicates the presence of high altitude clouds that brighten the planet while blocking from the methane clouds below.
Exploring Deep Space
The Asas-sn Project published a catalog of bright supernova that spans its year-and-a-half in operation (arXiv: 1604.00396). (Or watch their YouTube introduction) They combined the supernova survey’s own discoveries with those from professional and amateur astronomers. Since May 2014, amateur astronomers made 29% of the discoveries of which amateurs “discovered 26%, 29%, and 47% of the Type Ia, Type II, and Type Ib/Ic supernovae respectively.” (Footnote references removed) How do amateurs play such a prominent role? Ironically it’s due to the amazing power of the mountaintop observatories that lets them observe incredibly faint objects but cannot observe the bright flashes from relatively large and nearby supernovae. Amateurs, on the other hand, have the time and equipment needed to discover these objects. You can read my interview with European amateur supernova hunter Josch Hambsch about his work.
Scientists conducted followup observations of an amateur-discovered supernova (arXiv: 1604.01021). SN2015F was a Type1a supernova discovered by South African amateur astronomer Berto Menard. He has discovered more than one hundred supernovae from his observatory near Pretoria. The study’s scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe SN2015F in the ultraviolet. This outer layers of a supernova explosion emits intense UV radiation the nature of which can help astronomers understand the properties of the original star and the processes that drove its death.
Motherboard reported on an open source cosmic ray detector. The banana-filled article speaks with the European scientists behind Cosmic Pi. Their goal: to make an affordable device that anyone can build to record cosmic ray impacts. The Cosmic Pi blog documents how the detector works. Light emitted when a cosmic ray strikes a scintillator bar gets channeled through fiber optic cable to a photo-multiplier. An instrument based on an Arduino micro-controller and a Raspberry Pi processor converts that signal into data for display on a browser widget.
Two astrophotography contests are still open for entries. The Royal Observatory’s Insight Astronomer Photographer of the Year will accept entries through April 14. Arguably the most prestigious astrophotography contest, winning images can get cash prizes and inclusion in the annual coffee table book. The World at Night’s International Earth and Sky Photo Contest has a more purpose-driven approach. In addition to technical and aesthetic considerations, entered photographs must highlight the importance of dark skies and the fight against light pollution.
The long-running Galaxy Zoo crowdsourcing project has added two new sets of galaxy images. More than 87,000 images will need to be evaluated by a dozen citizen scientists before being added to Galaxy Zoo’s catalog of galactic morphologies (shapes).
Outreach, Tourism, and Other News
More news has emerged about World View Voyages and the potential lawsuit that could derail its plans to fly tourists into the stratosphere. The county supervisors approved a deal to build the company's headquarters and manufacturing plant and lease it back to World View. A libertarian group has challenged the deal, claiming it violates Arizona's anti-corruption laws. The Arizona Daily Star reported on the response from county supervisors dismissing the claims. However, that was not enough to stop 20% of the real estate project’s potential investors from withdrawing their deposits. A long-form editorial in the Tucson Sentinel tries to take a balanced look at the debate. On the one hand, Blake Morlock explains, the country supervisors did what it takes in the aggressive competition between states for high technology businesses. New Mexico and Florida were both trying to lure World View away from its home state. At the same time, Tucson is an extremely poor city with a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. Spending tens of millions on a high-risk gamble that the stratospheric research and tourism market will sustain hundreds of jobs is hard to justify.