Amateur Space Weekly - April 18

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: Wisconsin high school outperforms universities in Nasa engineering contest
  • Space Makers: US rocket contests, European CanSat contests, university rover competitions, and high school Near Space balloon projects
  • Amateurs in Space: Schools building hardware for Nasa and sending science experiments into space
  • Exploring Earth: Satellite imaging for humanitarian relief, citizen science in China, and weather spotting in the US
  • Exploring the Solar System: Comet hunting, eclipse chasing, meteor spotting, and crowdfunding a radio telescope to study comets
  • Exploring Deep Space: Remote control astrophotography, more data to search for ET, playing games for quantum physics, and a student-teacher astronomical discovery
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Nasa's 70's era graphic design standard, Near Space tourism's legal battles continue, a high school student's search for science, and Swiss zero-g tourism makes progress

Featured News:

Space Makers

Nasa held its sixteenth annual Student Launch competition over the weekend. High school, college, and university teams spent the past school year designing their own high performance rocket. The teams had to follow Nasa’s own development process and pass a series of design reviews conducted by the space agencies own engineers. Nearly fifty teams from twenty-two states launched their rockets from an Alabama farm near the Marshall Space Flight Center. A strong showing from Florida’s rocketeers saw Plantation High School and the University of Florida take the altitude prize in their respective categories. Student Launch announced the preliminary list of prize winners. You can watch videos of the launches on MSFC’s Ustream archive.

The next big launch contest for America’s student rocket scientists is the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The Franklin County Times reports that last year’s champions will return thanks to their outreach efforts with Alabama schools. Even though RCS Engineering did not pass the qualifying rounds, the teenagers spent the past year visiting schools in rural Alabama to boost interest in rocketry and science in general. The Watertown Daily Times featured the New York 4-H Aerospace Club that qualified for the TARC finals.

A CanSat descending after its rocket launch. Credit: CanSat Nederland

The European Space Agency fosters student interest in science and math by sponsoring the European CanSat competition. CanSats are fully-functional model satellites small enough to fit in a Coke can. A suborbital rocket launches the CanSat hundreds of meters above a launch field in Portugal. During its safe descent the CanSat must record data that the students analyze. Each Esa member-state conducts national contests to select schools to participate in the Europe-wide finals. Ireland held its national finals last week. A team of second-year students at Kildare’s Confey College will represent Ireland in the European finals, Silicon Republic reports. An article in the Irish Examiner in the week before the contest described how life changed for a member of the 2014 champions. The computer skills he picked up led him to study computer engineering in college and eventually start his own company.

The Mars Society conducts a university-level competition to design a rover that could help astronauts explore Mars. The University Rover Challenge runs every June in the deserts of southwestern Utah. Utah’s Herald Extra reported on Brigham Young University’s multidisciplinary team of undergraduates. Meanwhile Missouri University of Science and Technology unveiled their new rover design:

Modeled after the URC, the European Rover Challenge attracts a global field of university teams. This year it received a record sixty applications from teams in twelve countries. Judges will evaluate the teams’ preliminary reports to downselect the field to twenty competitors.

NBC News featured pre-teen sisters Kimberly and Rebecca Yeung whose high altitude balloon project earned them an invitation to last week’s White House Science Fair.

A Colorado high school’s engineering and research class conducted a high-altitude project of their own, the Estes Park Trail-Gazette reported. The students designed a radiation experiment that flew on a balloon mission conducted by Edge Of Space Sciences.

Amateurs in Space

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) teaches high school students how to build parts for the International Space Station using modern manufacturing tools. The Houston Chronicle visited the Oak Ridge High School students making lockers and cargo bags for Nasa. As schools develop in the program, students conduct more advanced projects. The Yakima Herald interviewed the Washington state students who designed a cold storage locker that could keep fruit fresh in zero-g.

Slovakia’s first satellite will let amateur radio operators receive pictures from space.

The SpaceX-launched resupply mission to the International Space Station carried the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program’s seventh mission into orbit. Teenagers in two dozen communities from eighteen states designed experiments that will take place in the space station’s microgravity environment. The achievement generated a wave of local press coverage: 

The SSEP’s eighth mission and ninth mission will launch this summer with student experiments from thirty-five communities in the United States and Canada. The Cleburne Times Review reports that a team of Texas fifth graders’ proposal for kidney stone research has been picked for launch on mission nine.

Exploring Earth

The proliferation of commercial remote sensing satellites has brought the study of Earth from space out of the halls of spy agencies. SciDevNet reports that humanitarian organizations now use satellite imagery to aid refugees. Monitoring civil conflicts and food security lets these organizations anticipate where they will be needed, making their work more efficient and easing the suffering of thousands of displaced migrants.

Citizen science experts from the Wilson Center described the state of Chinese citizen science in New Security Beat. Civil organizations are using social media and mobile apps to crowdsource reports of river pollution, climate change, and biodiversity.

As the spring storm season gets under way, networks of volunteer weather watchers continue their recruitment drives. Bedford Now reported from a SkyWarn training workshop where Michigan emergency responders said they would be “in dire straits” without the storm-spotters. Delaware’s branch of the Cocorahs rainfall reporting network won a recruiting award for doubling its Cocorahs membership.

Exploring the Solar System

Citizen scientists can help discover comets lurking in the asteroid belt by contributing to Comet Hunters. The crowdsourcing project lets the public evaluate images of asteroids for signs of cometary tails. Project scientists announced last week that they added a new batch of images.

The Nottingham Post spoke with British eclipse chaser Michael Knowles. He joined a Holland America cruise in southeast Asia to catch the recent total eclipse. The ship had to make a twenty mile detour from its regular course to give passengers the nearly three minute experience.

Professor Antonio Paris, a physics and astronomy professor at Florida’s St. Petersburg College, believes a sudden radio frequency signal observered in the 1970’s was caused by a comet rather than an alien civilization. Proving that requires time on a radio telescope, but all of the big observatories are overbooked many times over. The undeterred Paris will crowdfund his research, Universe Today reports. His gofundme campaign is less than $1,300 away from reaching its goal. The money will cover the cost of installing a three meter radio telescope on the St. Petersburg College campus.

The American Meteor Society collects public reports of the brightest meteors, called fireballs. With enough reports the AMS can track the sites of potential meteor impacts and trace the source in space of the original meteoroid. An April 15th fireball over the midwestern United States generated more than five hundred reports.

Exploring Deep Space

An amateur astronomer in Massachusetts uses a robotic observatory in New Mexico, the Sun Chronicle reports. Weather and light pollution makes urban astronomy a challenge. Placing a telescope in rural New Mexico and controlling it over the Internet lets

A review of astronomy-related apps on Spacedotcom also provides an interesting sampling of the science and history of astronomy.

The announcement of an interstellar mission drowned out other important news for amateur space explorers. The Breakthrough Initiative released fresh radio telescope data for the Seti@Home project. Citizen scientists who donate their personal computers’ unused processing power can help conduct pulsar research and search for extra terrestrial civilizations.

This is deep in the other direction, but could impact astrophysics. Danish scientists used gamification to crowdsource a quantum physics algorithm. "The players solve a very complex problem by creating simple strategies,” explained Jacob Sherson of Aarhus University. “Where a computer goes through all available options, players automatically search for a solution that intuitively feels right.” The research has been published in Nature (paywall DOI: 10.1038/nature17620, free preprint arXiv: 1506.09091).

An undergraduate at the University of Hawaii at Hilo studies merging galaxies.

Astronomy Now’s article about the Spider Nebula mentioned in passing that a group of students and teachers had studied the nebula. They were part of the Nasa/Ipac Teacher Archive Research Program and found more than one hundred Young Stellar Object candidates (baby stars) in data collected by Nasa’s space telescopes. (Here’s a PDF of their poster presentation from the American Astronomical Society’s Winter Meeting)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Last fall two graphics artists launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the restoration of Nasa’s 1970’s-era graphic design standards manual. They raised more than $940,000 on an original $158,000 goal. Now that the new book has shipped to backers, reports Curbed, the public will soon have access. The Standards Manual site is accepting preorders from the general public. Or you can download a free PDF straight from Nasa.

Sky & Telescope’s editors recapped the Northeast Astronomy Forum. While most spoke about the new products available to amateur astronomers, Senior Editor Alan MacRobert related his meeting with a tenth-grader who wanted advice on her science project.

The threatened lawsuit against Pima County deal to build a headquarters for World View Voyages is another step closer to the courthouse. The Arizona Daily Star reported that the Goldwater Insitute planned to file its lawsuit last week. It also published the Pima County’s response after the suit was filed. The lawsuit could derail World View’s plans to operate its Near Space tourism flights from its Arizona hometown. Prior to the county development deal, the company had development offers from spaceport authorities in New Mexico and Florida.

Swiss Space Systems (S3) announced that it completed its purchase of an Airbus A340 for use as a microgravity facility. The tourist flights will carry seventy passengers on fifteen parabolic arcs for a combined five minutes in near zero-g conditions. S3 also plans to operate flights for scientific research by space agencies, research universities, and businesses.