Amateur Space Weekly - May 24

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 schoolers US rocketry champs.
  • Space Makers: Science missions for amateur satellites, Canada's lunar mission, K-8 school's cubesat must wake up, Nasa hackathon finalists, amateur rocketry and Near Space exploration.
  • Amateurs in Space: Red pepper risotto for astronauts, donations needed to replace space station ham radio, student zero-g DNA research.
  • Exploring Earth: Turning fishing boats into citizen science platforms, democratization of satellite imagery.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Bright fireball over New England, a contest to map Mars, amateur research about Jupiter, explaining an amateur discovery above Mars.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Undergraduates control Kepler Space Telescope, crowdfunding exoplanet research, published research based on amateur data.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: European space fashion, a history of space tourism, UK spaceport, and more.

Featured News

Space Makers

CubeSats could revolutionize scientific research in space says a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. CubeSats were first designed in the late 1990’s to let university students experience an end-to-end space project. Technological advances since then have made them more capable, but only a few science-based CubeSat projects have reached orbit. Nasa asked the NAS to study the state of the CubeSat technology and its role in space science. The report does not address amateur satellites, per se, but the recommendations could inspire amateur projects that go beyond the typical “hello world” approach.

The only Canadian team racing to the Moon appeared on Our Vancouver. More than a dozen teams in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition hope to land a robot on the lunar surface to claim a $20 million prize. Plan B is an all-volunteer effort led by father-son team Alex and Sergei Dobrianski.

Last week astronauts released STMSat-1 from the International Space Station. Students at the St Thomas More Cathedral School, a kindergarten through grade eight primary school, designed and built the CubeSat over the course of four years. The news generated coverage in both the national (CBS News) and catholic press (Catholic Herald). STMSat-1 was supposed to start broadcasting a radio signal once its solar panels charged its batteries. A week later, still no signal. An update from the Amateur Radio Relay League reports that the school radioed a command to the satellite today - a planned procedure - with hopes that the satellite will reboot and begin transmitting.

Nasa’s Space Apps Challenge announced the category finalists and the top 25 popular choice teams. The annual hackathon invites teams around the world to weekend-long sessions where they work on solutions to problems in space science and aviation. Popular voting concluded last week. Nasa’s judges are reviewing the results and will name the final winners this week. One of the 25 semi-finalists is Nicaragua’s Mission Moon. A posting to the Nasa Open Data blog describes the mother-son team’s experience in Nasa’s hackathons and how it has changed their lives.

The National Association of Rocketry is the United States’ amateur rocketry society. It fosters the hobby by establishing safety standards and certifying model rocket motors. A recent newsletter thanks the more than one hundred members who helped conduct the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Henderson State University’s student newspaper wrote about Reddie Rockets, the only NAR chapter in Arkansas. While they conduct local launches, they must travel to neighboring Tennessee to launch high performance rockets. The Rocketry Show podcast recorded several episodes from the NAR’s annual convention.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge triggered a wave of media reports last week. The Seattle Times ran a piece about what motivates Seattle-area teen rocketeers. My favorite reason: “Rockets connect humans to the unexplored.” A reader wrote to the Ventura County Star about his experience with rocketry in the years leading up to World War II when teachers actively discouraged interest because “space travel is nonsense”. Local media celebrated individual teams from Texas, California, Alabama, Colorado, and Mississippi.

Indiana schools conducted a series of balloon flights into the stratosphere, Goshen News reports. Concord Junior High School’s mission included several radiation and atmospheric experiments in addition to the obligatory GoPro cameras. The Hinckley Times wrote about a British secondary school that included a cosmic ray detector on its Near Space mission. The Ventura County Star quoted a California 6th grader who said that his school’s high altitude balloon project was “my favorite science project ever.”

Amateurs in Space

Astronauts on the International Space Station will enjoy this student-designed red pepper risotto next year. Credit: Nasa/David Dehoyos

Nasa's Johnson Space Center announced that a student-designed red pepper risotto will be served to astronauts on the International Space Station. The students at New Jersey’s Passaic County Technical Institute submitted their dish to a tasting panel at the space center for the final round of the Hunch Culinary Challenge. Hunch - High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware - is part of Nasa's efforts to foster vocational education in American schools. Students preparing for careers in the restaurant industry must create nutritious dishes that meet the space agency’s standards for serving on the International Space Station. 

A fundraising campaign will replace the International Space Station’s amateur radio. Astronauts regularly use the radio to communicate with ham radio operators on Earth. This includes operators conducting school outreach through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station project. The program has conducted more than one thousand sessions that let students speak with astronauts.

Genes in Space announced the student finalists in its zero-g DNA research contest. The winning team will send its DNA experiment to the International Space Station. This year’s five finalist teams from Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Oklahoma delivered pitch presentations at the International Space Development Conference in Puerto Rico later this summer. The Herald News interviewed one of the Massachusetts teams, a trio of tenth graders who want to study bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Ada News reported on the team of Oklahoma teems who want to study microgravity’s effects on natural selection. Anna-Sophia Boguraev, a New York high school student, won last year’s contest and is waiting to receive the data from her experiment. “The only thing that could better the feeling of watching my experiment launch to space,” Boguraev said in the press release, “is knowing that, in a few short days, I will be able to analyze the results, becoming a full part of humanity’s journey to the stars.”

Exploring Earth

Commercial fishing boats are citizen science oceanographic sensor platforms. The Woods Hole Institute partnered with the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation to place sensors on fishing boats operating off the coast of southern New England. The project combines ocean and weather data with reports about fish species to create a dataset richer and more frequently updated than anything scientists could create on their own.

Radio talk show host Diane Rehms conducted an episode about the revolution in satellite imaging. Walter Scott, chief technology officer for DigitalGlobe, spoke about the role his company played raising public awareness of the wildfire in Alberta and slavery-based fishing in the western Pacific. Planet Labs co-founder Robbie Schingler spoke about his company’s Open California Project. The creative commons archive holds constantly-updated images of California from space that developers can use to build image analysis tools and end-user apps. 

DigitalGlobe announced the 2016 Satellite Imagery Object Detection Challenge. The coding contest will ask developers to create machine vision tools that can process the company’s satellite images more effectively.

Exploring the Solar System

A fireball streaked across the night sky over the northeastern United States. More than 800 people submitted reports to the American Meteor Society. The AMS collects public reports of meteor fireballs in an effort to triangulate the landing site of any meteorites and to trace the original object’s origin in the Solar System. If any meteorites reached the ground, it happened somewhere along the border between Maine and Quebec.

National Geographic wrote about a new contest to create maps that astronauts could use on the surface of Mars. The map can’t be just a satellite image. Instead it must provide information important to the astronaut’s missions. Creative approaches in the Mars Exploration Zone Map Design Competition may use virtual or augmented reality to display the data. Prizes area available in several student categories as well as for citizen scientists.

Networks of amateur astronomers helped a major study of Jupiter. Over the course of three years, fifty Japanese amateur astronomers submitted observations of the gas giant to the Find Flash project. Another global team of amateur astronomers collected fifty-six days worth of videos. The combined data helped scientists constrain the asteroid impact rate to 6.5 impacts a year.

An explanation for the amateur-spotted plume in the Martian atmosphere may come from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. The spacecraft was on the wrong side of the planet when amateur astronomers spotted a plume rising high above the surface of the red planet. Scientists cannot explain it using their current understanding of the Martian atmosphere, but one possibility is that an intense solar storm struck the planet around that time. It might have generated plasma to create an aurora-like cloud.

Exploring Deep Space

Undergraduates at the University of Colorado-Boulder run the communications station for Nasa's Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: LASP

Undergraduates control Nasa’s exoplanet-hunting telescope, KUSA-TV reports. The University of Colorado - Boulder hosts the Kepler Space Telescope’s mission control center. The university’s engineering school has a program that makes students responsible for transmitting commands to the Kepler Space Telescope.

A crowdfunding campaign hopes to fund observations of “the most mysterious star in the galaxy.” Citizen scientists participating in the Planet Hunters project noticed strange variations in light from the star KIC 8462852. Scientist concluded that light from the star was dimming in a way that could be explained by massive fragmentation of comets… or ALIEN MEGASTRUCTURES. Guess which one the media ran with. Unable to get funding any other way, the researchers launched a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign to buy time on a private telescope network. It raised more than $23,000 in its first six days. 

Researchers posted several preprints to the arXiv over the past week:

  • A collaboration between amateur and professional astronomers conducted spectroscopic observations of three Wolf-Rayet variable stars. (arXiv: 1605.04868)
  • Amateur discovery and observations of novae in 2013 and 2015 helped trigger target-of-opportunity study with Fermi Large Area Telescope. (arXiv: 1605.04216)
  • Amateur astronomers collect 23,577 observations of RR Lyrae variable star TU Comae Berenices over six years. (arXiv: 1605.03242)
  • Scientists use amateur observations to supplement their statistical analysis of dwarf novae outbursts. (arXiv: 1605.02937)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

A fashion show this week in London will cap the European Space Agency’s Couture in Orbit competition. Fashion schools from the home countries of Esa astronauts designed space-inspired clothes that “that are both desirable and practical, while incorporating high-tech innovations.”

Space historian Roger Launius posted a brief history of space tourism to his blog. From early concepts in the 1960s to failed startups at the end of the Twentieth Century, the dream of space tourism does not have much to show for it. He followed that up with “A Breathless Survey of the History of Terrestrial Tourism and its Relation to Space Tourism”.

This year’s Queen’s Speech mentioned the UK spaceport initiative. The Telegraph reports on the history, modern players, and implications of a British spaceport that could exist “within the lifetime of parliament”. PirateFM reported on efforts to establish a spaceport in Cornwall, one of a dozen competing locations. However the Plymouth Herald reports that the British government has changed the rules. Rather than picking one politically-connected location, the government will create a certification process to support multiple spaceports.

Other news: