Amateur Space Weekly - May 16

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: Washington middle school takes US rocketry title
  • Space Makers: A CubeSat designed by grade schoolers reaches orbit, Near Space exploration in Canada and California, university rover design contests, and the Space App Challenge.
  • Amateurs in Space: Middle and high school student science projects return from the space station, 3D printing in orbit.
  • Exploring Earth: Space archaeology’s hits and misses.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Design a map of Mars, take pictures of Jupiter for science, and using Mars analog stations in game design.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen scientists versus the machines, amateur versus professional astrophotography.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: An inspiring journey to astrophysics, astronomy in libraries, crowdfunding Ethiopian astronomy outreach, and astronomy-driven development in India.

Featured News

Space Makers

Virginia grade school students have a satellite orbiting Earth. Earlier today astronauts on board the International Space Station placed STMSat-1 in the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer and released it into orbit. Parents and techers at St. Thomas More Cathedral School created the Mission Possible project to inspire kids to study science and math. More than four hundred students took part in the design, construction, and testing of the small satellite. Teachers integrated the project throughout the school’s pre-K through eighth grade curriculum. The satellite’s camera will take pictures of Earth and transmit them over amateur radio frequencies. Schools around the world can set up their own radio receivers to become Remote Mission Operation Centers. For the next nine months the schools will download images of Earth from space to further their own educational missions.

Getting a CubeSat into orbit can take years and thousands of dollars. Only a few schools can pull off that kind of project. Near Space exploration is a much more affordable. A few hundred dollars is all it takes to send a balloon into the stratosphere. Cameras capture Earth’s thin blue atmosphere beneath the inky blackness of Outer Space. California’s Mountain View High School is placing Near Space exploration at the center of its science curriculum, Los Altos Online reports. Students in physics, biology, and earth science classes collaborated to launch their science mission to the edge of space. Beyond the instrumentation and atmospheric sensors, the balloon carried seeds for a study of the Near Space environment’s effect on life. 

Schools across Canada participate in the National High Altitude Balloon Experiment (Habex). Students at the University of Regina designed an affordable system of electronics and ballooning equipment to do more than create cool pictures of space. Sensors collect data about the atmosphere that the students analyze and set in context of global climate change. Yukon News reported as Porter Creek Secondary School conducted the latest Habex mission.

The Mars Society conducts an annual rover design competition, the University Rover Challenge. Student teams run their rovers through a battery of trials to demonstrate how robotic-assisted exploration enhances human exploration of the red planet. Washington State University’s engineering club unveiled their entry in this year’s competition, the Seattle Times reported. Students from Bialystok Technical University, the winners for the past three years, unveiled their “Red” rover, Wrota Podlasia reported. Students at another Polish university, the Technical University of Warsaw, reduced the mass of key parts by two thirds thanks to 3D printing, 3ders reported.

University teams are gathering this week at the Kennedy Space Center for Nasa’s Robot Mining Challenge. Their objective: design an automated robot that can mine the Martian surface. The limitations of Earth-to-Mars transport means the robot must be small and light. At the same time it must be durable enough to traverse the red planet’s rugged terrain and handle the abrasive basaltic regolith. The Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s reports that the University of Hawaii Hilo’s robot team hopes to convince the state’s teens that they have options at home to study robotics. The Chicago Tribune featured the team from Oakton Community College competing against teams from established engineering powerhouses. One of those powerhouses, Iowa State University’s Cyclone Space Mining team, will field a two-robot design.

Nasa’s Sample Return Robot Challenge, another university-centric rover contest, takes place in June and September on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic University. The contest tasks teams with designing a rover that can autonomously gather and cache geologic samples for a possible sample return mission. Mexico News Daily reported on the student rover designers on National Autonomous University’s Team Unam Space. They completed the phase one competition last year, which lets them compete in this year’s phase two challenges. Team Alabama Astrobotic is building on its success in last year’s Robot Mining Challenge to compete in the Sample Return Robot Challenge. The University of Alabama students developed a sixteen-laser lidar system so their robot can “see” the surrounding terrain.

The American Astronautical Society (AAS) and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) sponsor the annual University CanSat competition. Students design and build a model satellite the size of a soda can. It must withstand the vibration and g-forces of a high performance rocket launch. Upon release it deploys a glider mechanism and transmit atmospheric data during its descent. Forty teams from around the world will meet in Texas for the contest. The Tribune reported on the team of eight undergraduates from India’s PEC University of Technology whose vehicle combines 3D printed parts with an advanced composite structure.

Two weekends ago coders and hackers around the world took part in Nasa’s Space Apps Challenge. Wamda reports on the Jordanian high school girls who brought the challenge to Amman for the first time. “People around us are like ‘you’re 16, you can’t do such a thing,’” sixteen year old Maram Abu Hussein said. “Age is just a number.” With help from the US Embassy and Jordan’s entrepreneurial community, the two teens brought fifty Jordanians together to meet Nasa’s challenges.

Amateurs in Space

The SpaceX Dragon capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean carried experiments designed by teenagers. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX brought twenty-five student-designed science experiments back to Earth last week. The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program’s seventh mission to the International Space Station was the students’ second attempt to do research in space. The Falcon 9 mid-air explosion last year plummeted the Dragon capsule into the Atlantic Ocean. With SpaceX’s resumption of space station cargo flights, the students had a second chance. Their experiments ranged from studying microgravity’s effect on tardigrades to the germination of radishes in zero-g.

Artists and students will be among the first to 3D print objects in space, Engineering reports. They will use the Additive Manufacturing Facility, a zero-g 3D printer developed by Silicon Valley startup Made-in-Space. The company has partnered with Lowes Innovation Labs to commercialize the printer so researchers, businesses, and artists can create unique structures without the constraints of Earth’s gravitational pull.

Exploring Earth

News spread quickly last week when a Canadian high school student claimed to have found a lost Mayan city. He matched Mayan constellations to images from Google Earth. One reason the news went viral: the Canadian Space Agency helped with his research. Experts on Mayan history quickly poured cold water on the claims - the rectangular shape is more likely an abandoned farm. But space archaeology is a thing. Modern-day Indiana Joneses do use satellites to search for the hidden traces of ancient civilizations. Sarah Parcak, one of professional archaeology’s pioneers, recently won a TED Prize to let citizen scientists take part.

Exploring the Solar System

The International Cartographic Association wants you to create a map of Mars. Nasa is in the process of selecting landing sites for future human exploration of the red planet. Once astronauts are on the ground, they will need maps to guide their way around the exploration zones. Entrants in the Mars Exploration Zone Map Design Competition pick one of the potential landing sites and design a map that is more than just a picture from orbit. How do you communicate surface features, potential hazards, or areas of scientific interest in a graphically creative way? If you can answer that question, then this is the contest for you.

An international workshop refined plans for professional and amateur participation in Nasa’s Juno mission. When the spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter this July, it will be too close to the planet to capture global images. Professional observatories here on Earth are too busy to look at the giant planet as often as Juno’s science team needs. The JunoCam project will enlist amateur astronomers to take high-quality images of Jupiter to help planetary scientists plan observations of features in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The workshop held at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, brought amateurs from Europe, the United States, Japan, and Philippines together with an international team of planetary scientists. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Glenn Orton explained that “amateur observations can provide continuous monitoring of the atmosphere, creating a fluid documentation of the evolution of atmospheric features.” Recordings of the sessions will be available on the workshop website.

A father-son coding team modeled their game’s environment on the Mars Society’s analog research station, the Daily Sentinel reports. The Mars-advocacy organization operates the Mars Desert Research Station in the deserts of southwestern Utah. Volunteer crews test technologies and procedures that future astronauts may use when they explore the red planet. Synaptic Switch co-founder Robert Madsen joined one of the crews to get an insight into what Mars exploration would really be like as he and his son develop MarsCorp.

Exploring Deep Space

Computer algorithms will get better at spotting interacting and irregularly shaped galaxies, but citizen scientists will continue to play a role in galaxy-spotting. Credit: Nasa/Esa/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/Aura)

Citizen science will take a back seat to artificial intelligence, the Atlantic claims. Galaxy Zoo helped spark the new generation of online citizen science projects. Its 900,000 galaxy database would not have been possible without the contributions of millions of volunteers around the world. New observatories like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will generate so much data every day, however, that citizen scientists would never be able to keep pace. Scientists are developing machine learning algorithms that can process the data in real time. What the article leaves out, however, is that citizen science will continue to play a critical role. These algorithms require a dataset of confirmed observations to start learning - and only citizen scientists can do that kind of work.

How can amateur astronomers create images that look as good as the professionals and what is the difference? Those are questions taken on by Travis Rector co-author of Coloring the Universe. Finnish amateur astronomer J-P Metsavainio wrote a blog post about his image of the nebula Sharpless 114 and compared it to an image made by Rector with the four-meter Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak. Rector explains how the design of telescopes used by amateurs and professionals (and the techniques used by both) produce the resulting image.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Glamour Magazine ran a story about astrophysicist Aomawa Shields' indirect path to astronomy. The isolation she felt as a woman of color in an all-white, mostly male astronomy program made her so uncomfortable that she left the field to pursue a career in acting. Fortunately she found a community that brought her back to her first love and will start teaching and research at the University of California Irvine.

Amateur astronomers donated telescopes to the New Mexico State University Alomogordo’s library, the Alamogordo Daily News reports. Donating telescopes is an increasingly popular form of outreach for amateur astronomy clubs. Libraries have the systems to lend (and recover) things to the public, something all-volunteer clubs struggle to do. The amateurs use their expertise to modify and maintain the telescopes, train library staff, and conduct workshops for library patrons.

A crowdfunding campaign to bring telescopes to rural schools in Ethiopia met its goal within days of launching. Astrobus-Ethiopia will donate Celestron telescopes to eight schools in Ethiopia and train the teachers to use the telescopes in science classes. The project was funded as part of Astronomy Without Borders’ Big Impact Giving program

New Indian Express reported that the Chief Minister of Jammu-Kashmir wants to invest in astronomy research to support education and tourism in the Himalayan state.