Amateur Space Weekly - May 2

This week’s recap of news from the world of amateur space exploration includes:

  • Featured News: An Idaho high school won a Nasa contract to send a CubeSat into space
  • Space Makers: China’s middle school satellite, educational rocket contests, rover contests, and a Californian school exploring Near Space
  • Amateurs in Space: 3D printing a game in orbit, student research on the space station, and cooking for astronauts
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing earthquake and volcano data
  • Exploring the Solar System: Mapping Mars and a green meteor over Los Angeles
  • Exploring Deep Space: Exoplanet search with Canon cameras, astronomy research published with amateur data, and citizen scientists analyze galactic merger simulations.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Eclipse tourism, fighting light pollution, and how science’s “image glut” is an opportunity for citizen science

Featured News

Space Makers

Chinese middle school students have designed a satellite that will launch into orbit next year, People's Daily reports. Reporting at GBTimes set the news in context with China’s plans to explore the Solar System.

Cosmonauts on the space station will release a satellite designed by students at Russia’s Tomsk Polytechnic University, reports Southgate Amateur Radio News. The students 3D printed the 3U CubeSat’s structure - a world first. The satellite’s amateur radio transceivers will broadcast greetings in ten languages for schools and ham operators around the world to receive.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge, the United States’ largest educational rocketry contest, blasts off from a Virginia farm in two weeks. One hundred middle school and high school teams from twenty three states and the US Virgin Islands will launch two raw eggs on a model rocket to an altitude of 850 feet and return them safely to the Earth within forty six seconds. Local media have started featuring their local schools’ rocketeers. Publicity is important for the students because they must pay their own way to the competition. (Where possible, I’ve included links to their fundraising sites)

RCS Engineering’s teen rocketeers described their rookie year in Nasa's Student Launch competition to the Franklin County Times. The students won last year's Team America Rocketry Challenge and went on to take the International Rocketry Challenge title at the Paris Air Show. The year-long Nasa Student Launch program tasks university teams with developing a high-performance rocket to carry scientific instruments one mile into the sky. High schools and middle schools that do well in Tarc can earn an invitation to compete side-by-side with aerospace engineering undergraduates.

The Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition, the world’s largest university rocket design competition, is held every year in the deserts of the American west. Teams spend the school year developing a high performance rocket that can launch a ten pound payload to altitudes more than ten thousand feet above the desert floor. Last year’s competition drew thirty six teams from universities in six countries. Teams from the Brazil, Canada, Egypt, and the United States received awards for their entries. Two teams entered in this year’s contest were in the news last week. The rocket team at New Jersey’s Rowan University hosts its own rocket contest for local schools, the Courier Post reports. They modeled their contest on the national Team America Rocketry Challenge to get more kids interested in science and engineering careers. Kennesaw State University’s Rocket Club will be rookies in this year’s IREC, the KSU Sentinel reported.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign undergraduates' entry, descent, and landing proposal won a Nasa design contest. Their prize? Paid internships at Nasa’s Langley Research Center. The space agency developed an airbag-like aeroshell to slow spacecraft entering the thin Martian atmosphere. The Big Idea Challenge asked university teams to design methods of controlling the craft in flight. That would let mission planners - or future astronauts - control the spacecraft’s flight to its landing site. The winning proposal recommends using a system of cables to warp the aeroshell. As teams headed to the final review sessions, New York’s WGRZ reported on the University of Buffalo’s proposal to shift the spacecraft’s center of mass.

Three Bangladeshi teams of university rover designers will compete in the United States, the Daily Star reports. The students spend the school year designing a rover that could support a future human mission to Mars. They will travel to Utah to compete in the Mars Society's University Rover Challenge

Earth to Sky Calculus is a team of students from a rural California high school who have their own space program. They attach sensors to weather balloons and collect data from the stratosphere thirty kilometers above the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Atlas Obscura interviewed the teenaged Near Space explorers as well as the scientists who use their data. Earth to Sky Calculus has collected biological samples from the stratosphere, measured radiation levels during solar storms, and observed meteor showers up close. The team’s mentor, former CalTech scientist and Nasa science writer Dr. Tony Philips regularly includes their results on his Spaceweather site. Anyone can sponsor the $500 flight costs. In exchange the students return images and video of the sponsor’s billboard at the edge of space.

Amateurs in Space

A self-described “ordinary mom” works with schools to design games that astronauts play onthe space station, NBC Bay Area reports. The students had to apply their classroom physics theory to create a game that works in microgravity. Rather than launch the game into space, the students designed the pieces for “Star Catcher” to print on the space station’s Made In Space 3D printer. The Space Games Challenge education program is MJ Marggraff’s latest step to restoring her childhood dreams of space exploration.

Nasa celebrated National DNA Day by featuring Anna-Sophia Boguraev, the teenager whose gene expression research is on the space station. She won a national competition that gives high school students a chance to conduct sophisticated biological research in microgravity. The competition invites students in the United States and the United Arab Emirates submit proposal for using a polymerase chain reaction laboratory on the space station. Genes in Space will announce this year’s finalists from each country later this month.

A New Jersey high school’s muscle regeneration experiment is ready to go into space, NJdotcom reports. They want to see if a drug commonly used to treat muscle injuries here on Earth will work as well in microgravity. This is just one of nearly two dozen experiments going into orbit with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Since its inception in 2010, more than sixty thousand students in the United States and Canada have taken part in more than one hundred research projects on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Aviation Week & Space Technology interviewed teenagers creating meals for astronauts in the Hunch Culinary Challenge. Students must develop a meal for astronauts which is not as easy as it sounds. Not only must the meal meet Nasa’s nutritional requirements, but it must take into account the unique zero-gravity conditions on the space station. If the food drips or flakes or otherwise breaks loose, it will float around the space station where it could create electrical shorts or be breathed in by astronauts. The annual Hunch Culinary Challenge is open to schools with culinary arts programs who are part of Nasa's vocational education program High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware.

Exploring Earth

Crowdsourcing and citizen science are increasingly popular tools for scientists studying Earth’s dynamic systems. Thousands of Earth scientists may have sophisticated instruments to study tectonic plates and volcanoes, but they can not be everywhere. Earth is a big planet. Fortunately there are seven billion people living on Earth. Amazing things are possible when a small fraction share their experiences.

Fast Company wrote about the role crowdsourcing plays in responding to last month’s earthquake in Ecuador. Citizen scientists used services like Tomnod and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap to identify damage in images from orbiting satellites. The maps let emergency responders prioritize relief efforts to areas that need help the most.

Not all clouds are the same. Seasonal winds in Alaska kick up clouds of volcanic ash (circled) from century old eruptions. Citizen scientists will help the USGS track the ash clouds' progress. Credit: Nasa/GSFC

Not all clouds are the same. Seasonal winds in Alaska kick up clouds of volcanic ash (circled) from century old eruptions. Citizen scientists will help the USGS track the ash clouds' progress. Credit: Nasa/GSFC

The United States Geological Survey is a citizen science early adopter. Its seismologists rely on public reports of earthquakes to measure a quake’s extent and intensity. Now the USGS has asked Alaskans to report ash clouds and collect samples of volcanic ash. Most people think of Hawaii when it comes to volcanic eruptions in the US, but Alaska has more volcanoes than any other state. Eruptions more than a century ago deposited volcanic ash across the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Strong winds every spring and fall sweep the ash into the sky where it becomes a hazard for aircraft flying between North America and Asia. The USGS hopes citizen science will produce more data than the handful of volcanologists can collect on their own.

Exploring the Solar System

Mars may be smaller than Earth, but everything is relative. The red planet is still a pretty big place. Planet Four: Terrains is a crowdsourcing project that asks citizen scientists to mark seasonal features in images of the Martian south pole. The project’s latest blog post shows how little area the 50,000 images cover

A large meteor streaked over Los Angeles last week, the American Meteor Society reported. The AMS received 260 reports from people across Southern California. Crowdsourcing public reports lets the AMS track the meteor’s path - and potential meteorite landing sites. In this case the meteor was heading west to the Pacific Ocean - but not before dashcams caught the green-glowing light (it appears at the 0:10 mark from the upper left corner):

Exploring Deep Space

Panoptes was a hundred-eyed giant in Greek mythology. The modern day Project Panoptes is a pro-am collaboration to study exoplanets. Scientists with the Subaru Telescope are recruiting a global network of professional and amateur astronomers to deploy inexpensive observatories that use a pair of Canon SL1 cameras and Rokinon 85mm lenses. (The $5,000 total cost is “inexpensive” relative to the millions of dollars observatories like the Subaru cost.) The network’s observatories will scan the night sky for the tell-tale dimming of a star as an exoplanet passes between the star and Earth. Opensourcedotcom interviewed two members of Project Panoptes about their plans. As the technology matures they hope to extend the network to schools and amateur astronomy groups so the public can play a greater role seeking out new worlds.

Two preprints recently posted to arXiv show how amateurs contribute to astronomy research. The first is a study of a super-outburst dwarf nova by scientists at Kyoto University (arXiv: 1604.06344). They used data collected by VSNet, a global collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers who measure stellar variability. The second is a discussion of variable brown dwarf stars and exoplanet observations accessible to amateurs (arXiv: 1604.06128). Presented by a postdoctoral fellow at Heidelburg University, the paper reviews examples of research projects that amateur astronomers could conduct with affordable equipment.

The Galaxy Zoo citizen science project has spawned several side projects. One of these, Galaxy Zoo: Mergers studied the interaction between galaxies as they collided. Unlike the original project which used images of actual galaxies, this project used the output of computer simulations. Citizen scientists were asked to compare three million output images with actual mergers to find the best match. This is a task where people outperform computers since “best” is such a fuzzy concept. The final research paper has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed journal MNRAS (arXiv: 1604.00435).

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Eclipse spotters have already booked hotels across the American West in anticipation of next year’s solar eclipse, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. The story was picked up through the Associated Press by media outlets around the world. While the traditional tourist communities around the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks offer many options - now mostly booked - plenty of options off-the-beaten-tracks can give eclipse watchers a view of the Sun. Unless it’s cloudy.

A curtain of light pollution hides the night sky from most of the world’s population. In Great Britain the Mid Sussex Times spoke with an amateur astronomer who dismantled his backyard observatory after the night sky turned orange. There are many factors contributing to light pollution, but government policy is one that the public has a chance to change. Streetlights are a major contributor to light pollution that grows worse as cities grow. DNAinfo wrote about Chicago schoolchildren campaigning for better lighting choices in the Windy City.

An article in Nature examines how scientists are dealing with “image glut” - the terabytes of data modern science generates every day (open access DOI: 10.1038/533131a). One of the examples comes from Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The space telescope transmits more than 1.5 terabytes of data back to Earth every day - so much data that scientists needed easier tools. They created the helioviewer and made it publicly available. Scientists, students, and the general public can download images and create movies of the Sun’s roiling surface.