Amateur Space Weekly - April 4

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: Call opens for secondary schools to send research into orbit
  • Space Makers: Russia’s crowdfunded satellite, America’s student rocketry
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: SpaceX will launch teen experiments, microgravity workshop for European undergraduates, a zero-g contest for American undergraduates
  • Exploring Earth: USGS crowdsources earthquake reports
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateurs spot Jupiter impact, a fireball over Florida, crowdsourced data mining to improve Mars exploration
  • Exploring Deep Space: Undergraduate discovers outrageously luminous galaxy, crowdfunding radio astronomy research, citizen science-supported exoplanet research 
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: More potholes on the road to space tourism, ASU to create planetary tours for Nasa, eclipses and astronomy in Casper, an amateur speaks out against light pollution

Featured News

Space Makers

Last month I wrote about Mayak, the crowdfunded amateur sputnik project. The academics, tinkerers, and space enthusiasts working on the project want to test techniques to reduce space debris in orbit. Now the Mayak Project has a $45,000 Kickstarter campaign. The money will cover the final assembly and testing required before the satellite can go into space. (Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has promised a free ride into orbit this summer.) Once in orbit, Mayak will deploy a pyramid-shaped solar reflector and briefly become brighter than any star in the night sky. The reflector will also increase the drag forces acting on the satellite in order to bring Mayak out of orbit. Along the way the “group of friends and like-minded people” hope to inspire the public - and students in particular. The Mayak Project already raised nearly 2,000,000 rubles (about $30,000) on Russia’s Boomstarter crowdfunding site. Thinking about backing the project? You can check out the Cosmo Mayak site for more details.

The rocket season is in full swing. Redmond, Washington’s Tesla STEM High School has a high-performance rocket, local TV station King5 reports. The students are competing in Nasa’s Student Launch Initiative, a contest that lets high school teams and undergraduate teams of rocketeers compete to launch a rocket a mile high. Georgia’s Valdosta Daily Times reported on a regional rocket fair that is battling the elements. The annual Georgia Rockets in the Skies event brings amateur rocketeers from across the southeastern United States, but a series of thunderstorms scrubbed the Friday launches. Students in Minnesota (Austin Daily Herald) and Texas (Big Bend Now) are preparing for regional qualifiers in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest rocket competition. And a troop of North Carolina Boy Scouts earned their aerospace merit badges by hand-building and launching their own model rockets, the Laurinburg Exchange reported.

Amateurs in Zero-G

Science education TV show Xploration Station announced the 2016 Student Astronaut Contest. Undergraduates who can clearly and entertainingly demonstrate microgravity and explain why space exploration is important have a shot to ride a Zero-G Corporation microgravity research plane.

The European Space Agency announced that its first Gravity-Related Research Summer School will start June 27. The five-day workshop will introduce undergraduate and graduate students to the range of opportunities for zero-gravity and partial-gravity research.

Colorado students’ algae-growth experiment will head into space this week, the Billings Gazette reports. Originally developed by students at the Billings Catholic Central High School, the experiment was destroyed in last year’s SpaceX Falcon 9 launch “mishap”. Although students graduated and teachers moved, a local professor picked up the project for undergraduates at Rocky Mountain College.

A Massachusetts teenager’s DNA experiment will reach orbit this week, New England Biolabs announced. Seventeen year old Anna-Sophia Boguraev won the Genes in Space competition with her proposal to test gene regulation in microgravity. Applications for the 2016 Genes in Space contest must be submitted by April 20.

Exploring Earth

The United States Geological Survey released a new earthquake risk assessment that includes both natural and human-induced quakes. “In the past five years, the USGS has documented high shaking and damage in areas of these six states, mostly from induced earthquakes,” said Mark Petersen, Chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project. “Furthermore, the USGS Did You Feel It? website has archived tens of thousands of reports from the public who experienced shaking in those states, including about 1,500 reports of strong shaking or damage.” Did You Feel It crowdsources public reports of earthquakes. Often the public reports trigger alerts before the USGS servers finish processing signals from its network of seismic sensors. The publicly-derived maps of an earthquake’s extent and intensity give emergency responders a rapid snapshot to guide their activities. Did You Feel It is just one example of programs that crowdsourced data about weather, quakes, volcanoes, and other natural hazards.

Exploring the Solar System

Jupiter took one for the team last month when an asteroid exploded in the gas giant’s atmosphere. Professional astronomers did not see it, however, because the world’s big observatories are too busy to look at the planets. Fortunately, amateur astronomers have plenty of time. An Austrian amateur astronomer spotted the flash of light in a video he captured. He posted to an astronomy forum and pretty soon the news went viral. The question of whether the flash was real or a camera glitch was answered by an Irish amateur who captured video of Jupiter - and the flash of light - at the same time. Bad Astronomer Phil Plait had one of the earliest recaps of the news and explains some of the science and history of Jupiter impacts. Sky & Telescope’s report includes high resolution images created by amateur astronomer Marc Delcroix to pinpoint the impact’s location.

A much smaller chunk of rock burned up in the skies over Florida, the Palm Beach Post reported. The American Meteor Society received 145 public sightings of the green fireball.

The European Space Agency wants to crowdsource space engineering. As the Mars Express orbiter ages, Esa mission planners need to improve the supply of power to the spacecraft's scientific instruments. People with data-mining expertise can join the Mars Express Power Challenge to analyze three years of data from the red planet. 

Exploring Deep Space

St. Petersburg College professor Dr. Antonio Paris is crowdfunding a radio astronomy project, Discover Magazine reported. A scientist working on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in 1977 spotted a 72-second long signal coming from the star cluster M55. A signal from an alien civilization is unlikely, but many natural explanations have been disproved. Dr. Paris wants to test one of the remaining natural causes - hydrogen clouds surrounding comets orbiting the Sun. The Wow Signal Theory Experiment will use a five-meter radio telescope to monitor comet P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) as it passes between Earth and M55 to see if the comet’s cloud of hydrogen gas was responsible for the “alien” signal. The project’s GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $7,200 towards a $13,000 goal.

Scientists with the Planet Hunters citizen science project posted a preprint of their latest research paper (arXiv: 1603.06945). The scientists searched for companion stars orbiting other exoplanet-hosting stars. Of the 75 target stars, 45 had been identified by Planet Hunters contributors as potential exoplanet host stars.

An undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts led a galaxy discovery project, the Boston Globe reported. Kevin Harrington began his research as a sophomore in collaboration with professor Min Yun and other astronomers around the world. The galaxies they discovered are ten times brighter than the brightest galaxies ever seen before. These “outrageously luminous” galaxies are bigger and brighter than current theory predicts. The galaxies appear to be creating a new star every hour in contrast to the two or three new stars in the Milky Way. The research, announced last week by the University of Massachusetts, appears in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (behind a paywall at DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stw614, free preprint arXiv: 1603.05622).

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The road to space tourism has been full of potholes. The latest one comes from Tucson, Arizona, where World View Enterprises plans to send tourists on balloon rides into the stratosphere. Earlier this year World View cut a deal with the Pima County government to operate from Tucson International Airport. County officials planned spend $15 million to build a headquarters, balloon manufacturing plant, and launch pad which World View would lease. (Check out this Space News report for details.) Now a lawsuit threatens to deflate the deal, Tucson TV station KVOA reports. The conservative Goldwater Institute wrote to county officials demanding they cancel the deal, claiming it violates Arizona contracting laws. The Pima County administrator refuted the charges in an emailed statement to Arizona Public Media.

Suborbital tourism companies Virgin Galactic and XCor could face competition in Asia, the Global Times speculates. The suborbital space tourism companies’ high ticket prices and frequent delays, combined with overly restrictive American security laws, could open the doors for a Chinese entrepreneur to serve the Asian market. 

Arizona State University announced details of the work it will do for Nasa’s education programs. The space agency recently stopped funding education projects through its individual space missions. While that approach placed education close to the engineers and scientists doing the exploration, it meant education programs had no central strategy and the budgets waxed and waned with mission budgets. Last fall Nasa awarded twenty seven institutions $42 million as part of a more centralized, strategic approach to education. ASU will receive more than $10 million over the next five years to produce virtual tours of the Solar System. “The aim is to help learners become problem-solvers capable of exploring the unknown, rather than just mastering what is already known,” Ariel Anbar, project deputy principal investigator, said in the press release.

K2 Radio reports that Casper, Wyoming, will host the Astronomical League’s 2017 meeting during the solar eclipse. Nasa’s eclipse expert Fred Espenak will keynote the conference. The meeting, and the eclipse, happen during the peak summer tourist season so the Astronomical League opened registration for ALCon2017 a year early.

Sometimes talking to a politician works, the International Dark Sky Association reports. An amateur astronomer attended a community forum in Washington state where he told state representative Jessyn Farrell about light pollution’s effects. Farrell took the amateur astronomer’s concerns to heart and introduced legislation, now signed into law, that starts to address light pollution. Seattle Astronomy posted full text of the legislation that requires Washington state’s Department of Transportation to factor light pollution into its planning.