Amateur Space Weekly - April 25

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.

  • Featured News: Advancing the science of citizen science
  • Space Makers: Teens advancing Arduino TRL, student rocketry, Near Space ballooning in schools, and a DIY underwater drone 
  • Amateurs in Space: Cuisine in space and sixth grade science on the space station, 
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing damage from Ecuador's earthquake, seismologists turn to citizen science, and why storm-spotters are so important to the National Weather Service
  • Exploring the Solar System: Students tell Nasa where to point the Mars Odyssey, spotting spiders on Mars, and spotting aurorae for science
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur data helps pros study a supernova imposter, learning variable star astronomy, and an interview with Galaxy Zoo amateurs
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Why STEM and STEAM matter, Victorian aeronauts get the Overview Effect, legal trials for Near Space tourism, amateur astronomy in Pakistan, and spotting a tumbling space telescope

Featured News

Space Makers

   Nasa's roadmap to space in nine easy steps. The space agency uses Technology Readiness Levels to classify where new technology stands from "that's a cool idea" to off-the-shelf.  Credit:  Nasa


Nasa's roadmap to space in nine easy steps. The space agency uses Technology Readiness Levels to classify where new technology stands from "that's a cool idea" to off-the-shelf. Credit: Nasa

isclaimer: I backed this crowdfunding campaign but have no other connection.  North Carolina teens are taking Arduino technology into space, but need crowdfunding to make it possible. They are working with the TinyDuino, a small scale but fully functional version of the Arduino micro-controller. The technology could enable a new generation of ultra-small satellites like the PocketQube or SunCube. But can it survive the harsh conditions of outer space? Nasa uses Technology Readiness Levels, or TRLs, to classify a technology’s suitability for space missions. At TRL1, researchers have a concept and have observed the basic properties in action. Through a series of research projects the technology advances to TRL9 after successfully operating in an actual space mission. The five students at Cox Mill High School are following that process to make the TinyDuino ready-for-space. They explained to the Independent Tribune how they advanced from working on a test bench to conducting a series of stratospheric tests with high-altitude balloons. Now they want to send the TinyDuino on a suborbital rocket launch provided by Nasa-contractor UpAerospace. Their campaign hopes to raise the $5,400 they need to cover the launch cost. That will advance the TinyDuino to TRL8 - “Actual system completed and ‘flight qualified’ through test and demonstration (ground or space).”

Next month hundreds of teens from across the United States and its territories will gather in Virginia for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Their mission: to launch two eggs hundreds of feet in the air on a DIY model rocket and return them safely to the Earth. Its main sponsor the Aerospace Industries Association announced last week that North Carolina high school students represented Tarc at the White House Science Fair. Local and regional media continue to cover the student teams who advanced to the finals. Both Kion Right Now and the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported on a team of home-schooled students whowill return for their second year.

Nasa invites some of the top-scoring teams in Tarc to participate in its Student Launch contest alongside teams of undergraduate students. The year-long contest requires teams to follow Nasa’s mission development process to build a high-performance rocket that climbs a mile above the surface. After this year’s competition concluded, WDRB reported on the rocket team from the University of Louisville. Nasa honored the team for their safety program and website design. Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering wrote about its own rocket team. The students won awards for payload design and project review. Nasa will announce the final results - as well as the overall high school and undergraduate champions - after the judges complete their review of the teams’ work.

A Nasa-sponsored competition sends North Carolina community colleges into Near Space, the Havelock News reports. Over the course of the school year students at Craven Community College and nine other two-year colleges developed a high altitude balloon mission that recorded atmospheric, telemetry, and video data from the stratosphere. The contest was made possible by a half-million dollar Nasa grant to encourage science and engineering education at community colleges and technical schools.

Texas’ Atlanta Citizen Journal reported on a local middle school’s Near Space balloon launch. The culmination of a seven-week course in amateur radio, the students used their new skills to track the balloon’s flight. The instrument payload recorded atmospheric data and captured the flight on GoPro cameras as it rose more than 105,000 feet over east Texas.

OpenROV's Trident will give amateur ocean explorers a new way to explore the world hidden beneath the waves.  Credit:  OpenROV

OpenROV's Trident will give amateur ocean explorers a new way to explore the world hidden beneath the waves. Credit: OpenROV

A team of makers who used DIY drone technology to create an open source underwater robot earned a Popular Science Innovation Award. Crowdfunded and developed by a global community of makers, roboticists, and ocean explorers the OpenROV project now provides plans and kits for DIY builders. Its new project, the Trident, is a fully-assembled underwater drone. Dozens of “expeditions” have registered their OpenROV-based exploration projects

Amateurs in Space

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to foster technical education in America. Hunch hosts an annual Culinary Challenge that lets high schools with culinary arts programs design meals suitable for the International Space Station. Last year’s championship-winning dish of Jamaican rice and beans with coconut milk traveled into orbit to serve hungry astronauts. Ten finalists headed to the Johnson Space Center last week for this year’s cook-off. Westword wrote about a farm-to-table restauranteur who helped develop a Colorado high school's mushroom-and-millet entree. WTNH reported on a Connecticut high school’s hopes for its veggie meatballs.

Every year dozens of middle and high school across the United States and Canada send research to the International Space Station thanks to the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. (The program is open to schools in ISS partner countries but only the US and Canada have take part so far.) The program’s seventh mission into space reached orbit on a SpaceX launch earlier this month. WFLA reported on a team of 6th graders who will study the effect of microgravity on cottonseed growth.

Exploring Earth

Last week's earthquake in Ecuador spurred several citizen science efforts to map damage. These crowdsourced maps can help emergency responders and recovery agencies set priorities much faster. Crowdmapping service Tomnod launched an Ecuador campaign. It uses high-resolution images from parent company Digital Globe - but not exclusively. Digital Globe open sourced the data to allow any organization respond to the disaster in Ecuador. The Zooniverse network of citizen science projects has also joined the effort. Ecuador Earthquake 2016 uses lower resolution Planet Labs images to map larger-scale destruction. The crowd crunched the first dataset in less than two hours. 

Citizen seismology was a hot topic at the Seismological Society of America’s annual meeting. A dedicated session highlighted ways the public contributes to the science of earthquakes. Programs let people host inexpensive seismic sensors, crowdsource reports from social media, and collect detailed information through online reports. You can read the citizen seismology abstracts on the conference website.

Storm-spotters are a crucial part of America’s weather system, the Greenville Advocate reports. Earth’s curvature raises the floor of a weather radar’s signal. At the edge of the radar’s range the beam is thousands of feet above the surface - and the actual weather. A recent workshop trained volunteer storm-spotters to safely observe severe weather conditions. National Weather Service meteorologists depend on reports from Skywarn volunteers to make accurate warnings and alerts.

Exploring the Solar System

The Mars Student Imaging Project is one of the coolest space-in-education programs. Schools develop their own research project to answer questions about the Martian surface. They then ask Nasa to point the Themis camera on the space agency’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and take pictures to support their research. Yeah. Kids tell Nasa what to do. On Mars. Writing at the Arizona Education News Service, a science teacher and his student explained how high schools conduct authentic science on Mars.

Planet Four: Terrains is a citizen science program that studies seasonal features at the Martian south pole. In a recent blog post, project scientists shared examples of Martian “baby spiders”. During the martian winter carbon dioxide freezes out of the atmosphere to frost the surface. As warming temperatures in the spring sublimate the carbon dioxide, small pits form in the surface dust. Over time these pits form channels radiating outward to create the “spiders” of Mars.

Citizen scientists help improve space weather forecasts by reporting aurora sightings, Eos Magazine reports. They contribute to Aurorasuarus a crowdsourcing project funded by the National Science Foundation. America’s space weather network consists of a sparse network of observatories and satellites that cannot produce resolutions high enough to forecast the extent of geomagnetic storms. Aurorasaurus scientists hope to match public reports of aurora strength and extent with observational data to refine the forecasting system.

Exploring Deep Space

Supernova imposters are stellar explosions with the same spectral signature as Type IIn supernovae but which leave the original star intact. European scientists published new research into the mellifluously-named imposter PSN J09132750+7627410. In addition to observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gran Telescope Canaria, and other professional observatories the scientists used four years of amateur observations. The research will be published in Astrophysical Journal (arXiv preprint: 1604.04628)

Variable star astronomy is one of the ways amateur astronomers turn their hobby into science. Despite its name, the American Association of Variable Star Observers is an international network of amateurs who support professional research. In honor of Global Astronomy Month, the AAVSO and Astronomy Without Borders published a novice’s guide to variable star astronomy. Anyone can make visual observations of L Carinei in the southern hemisphere or Delta Cephei in the northern hemisphere - even in light polluted cities. These are cepheid stars whose brightness varies so predictably that they serve as distance markers within the Milky Way and surrounding galaxies.

Galaxy Zoo interviewed two of its volunteer citizen scientists. The “exclusive” interview examines their motivations for joining the project and their reaction to becoming co-authors of a recent Galaxy Zoo research paper.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Actor and gaming advocate Wil Wheaton addressed the USA Science and Engineering Festival. His passionate appeal calls for stronger investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education - as well as the integration of the arts with project-based learning. It is an eloquent must-read for fans of science everywhere.

The BBC looked to the past to see what Near Space tourists can expect. Victorian aeronauts rode hydrogen-filled balloons to ever greater altitudes. Not only did they risk hypoxia as the air became thinner and thinner, the rapid drop in pressure during the balloons’ ascents often subjected these aviation pioneers to the bends as gas bubbled out of their blood. Despite the risks, the aeronauts were the first to experience the Overview Effect as they flew over a vast landscape without political boundaries.

Plans by Near Space tourism and research company World View Voyage to send modern balloon-borne aeronauts into the stratosphere may get delayed. Court House News reported on the legal challenge filed against World View’s development deal. The report quotes an interview with World View’s marketing director in which he defends the project and says that World View expects to open its new Arizona headquarters in November.

Gulf News wrote about the role amateur astronomers play in fostering Pakistani science education. Besides conducting outreach programs, they have developed an astronomy textbook and curriculum for use by schools.

Undergraduates at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott used telescopes to track the tumbling Hitomi space telescope. High hopes accompanied the Japanese space agency’s launch of its X-ray telescope. Its unique suite of instruments promised new discoveries in dark matter, supernova, and black hole research. Shortly after launch, however, Hitomi stopped transmitting. The Embry-Riddle students used a system developed at the university to track CubeSats in low Earth orbits to spot the tumbling telescope and an accompanying field of debris.