Amateur Space Weekly - May 9

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: An amateur satellite-maker hopes his solo space project will inspire fellow Australians to make things in space.
  • Space Makers: Voting begins for space apps, Canadians making a lunar lander, teen rocketeers, zero-g contests, Nasa fosters under-represented coders, Texas undergrads fix Nasa gear.
  • Amateurs in Space: Australia's first space station payload, middle school space medicine research, an American amateur satellite.
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing aids Ecuador earthquake relief.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur Mars discovery explained, Mercury transit as a teachable moment, citizen science's accidental aurora discovery, volunteers test asteroid mission for Nasa
  • Exploring Deep Space: All the supernovas in one place.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: European educator workshop, astrotourism in the Canary Islands, teaching low income students astronomy, crowdsourcing light pollution maps, an Iranian teen discovers her love of astronomy.

Featured News

Space Makers

Coders in the Swarmathon must program multiple "swarmies" to explore an area like a swarm of ants. Credits: NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis

Nasa and the University of New Mexico conduct the annual Swarmathon competition to foster under-represented coders at two-year and four-year colleges. The students learn how to program small four-wheeled robotic rovers. Unlike most robotics contests, these rovers are stand-alone robots. The devices must interact to explore much like a swarm of ants. Albuquerque’s KRQE reported on the two New Mexican schools who placed in Swarmathon’s top three.

Nasa’s International Space Apps Challenge brings coders and makers together for a two-day hackathon to address issues facing Nasa from aviation to the exploration of Mars. Judges at each local event pick two winning projects while the attendees pick a third. (Check out local coverage from IrelandCyprus, the Philippines, and the United States.) Nasa narrowed the list down to twenty-five semi-finalist teams. Public voting for the semi-finalist teams began today and runs through May 15. Nasa will spend a day compiling votes and then let the world vote on the five finalists.

The Google Lunar X-Prize challenges teams to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon without government funding. The teams have adopted a wide array of business models. Some operate like any other aerospace company while others look like academic collaborations. And then there’s Plan B. The father-son team of Canadian Ukrainians are the smallest team left in the contest. Vancouver radio station CKNW interviewed Alex and Sergei Dobrianski about the lunar passion project that has taken over their lives.

America’s largest educational rocketry competition culminates this summer with the Team America Rocketry Challenge championships in Virginia. Local media coverage of the middle and high school students who comprise the one hundred final teams continues. Teams must raise money to cover their travel expenses so where possible I’ve included links to their fundraising site:

American science show Xploration Station runs an annual Student Astronaut competition. Students between the ages of 18 and 24 can win a ride on Zero-G Corporation’s microgravity aircraft to demonstrate the value of science. Applications can be submitted until May 15. 

Vincennes University’s first year engineering students will explore Near Space, the Sun-Commercial reports. The two-year college is giving its students a more hands-on experience to enhance their academic education and improve their transfer opportunities. “The only way to teach students problem solving and team work is to give them tough, real-world problems to solve in a group setting,” professor Guillaume F. Jaubert said in the school’s press release. Operational support comes from educational high altitude ballooning company Stratostar.

A team of Massachusetts teenagers came in second in the FIRST Future Innovator Award competition, Wicked Local reported. They developed a device that would let astronauts measure mass in orbit. The scales we use here on Earth’s surface depend on gravity to first measure an object’s weight. The teens whose school is part of the Nasa Hunch program created an instrument that uses centripetal force to find the object’s mass in the zero gravity environment of the International Space Station.

Engineering students at the University of Houston had an interesting senior project, Your Houston News reports. They got to refurbish a thermal vacuum chamber at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center. The chambers simulates the vacuum conditions and extreme temperatures spacecraft experience in orbit and beyond. Nasa will use the refreshed chamber to test components for use on the space station and deep space missions.

The oldest organization building amateur satellites in the United States, Amsat-NA, announced the launch date of its next satellite. The RadFxSat CubeSat will carry amateur radio transceivers and a scientific payload when it launches in January 2017. Ham radio enthusiasts around the world will be able to communicate with each other via the satellite’s systems.

Amateurs in Space

An aerospace engineering student has sent Australia’s first payload to the International Space Station, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Solange Cunin’s Quberider is loaded with sensors to detect radiation, magnetic fields, and other aspects of the environment in orbit. More importantly Australian high school students wrote the code running the Quberider’s sixty experiments. This educational project is the first space project to receive an “overseas launch certificate” from the Australian government.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program gives more students a chance to do research in space. 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. Schools participating in the SSEP’s ninth mission are putting the final touches on their experiments scheduled to launch in August. The Day wrote about a space medicine experiment a team of Connecticut middle school students will conduct. They want to see what effect microgravity has on the growth of bacteria in catheters.

Exploring Earth

An orbital view of Ecuador lets citizen scientists map earthquake damage. Credit: Planet Labs

Nature wrote about citizen science projects helping Ecuador earthquake relief. The commercial remote sensing industry’s rapid growth has given humanitarian organizations access to tools once only available to spy agencies. The article focuses on the Zooniverse crowdsourcing service’s Planetary Response Network. It asks citizen scientists to spot damage in before-and-after images of Ecuador captured by Planet Labs satellites. The compiled data will provide emergency responders a map of damage across the region.

Exploring the Solar System

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained how teachers could turn today’s transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun into a teachable moment. Scientists once used transits to refine their measurements of the distance between the Sun and Earth - often enlisting amateur astronomers around the world to make observations. With the discovery of thousands of exoplanets, transits once again have scientific value as practice runs for detecting the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

Space weather may explain an amateur discovery on Mars. In 2012 amateur astronomers spotted a strange plume rising above the limb of Mars - far too high for clouds to form in the thin Martian atmosphere. Unfortunately the fleet of spacecraft orbiting the red planet were on the other side of the planet. New Scientist reports on the latest research that proposes space weather as the source. A coronal mass ejection had erupted from the Sun. Particles from the solar storm might have triggered the formation of extremely high altitude clouds. Even the researchers who published the paper have doubts about their conclusion, but it shows that amateurs can raise new questions for scientists even when observing something as intensely studied as Mars.

Planetary scientists enlisted a network of schools, libraries, and communities across the western United States to help explore the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. They use amateur telescopes to detect the shadow cast as these Kuiper Belt Objects pass in front of a star. The scientists reconstruct the shape of the objects by combining observations from dozens of sites. They can even detect rings and moons orbiting the small worlds. The Recon project updated its calendar of observing sessions for May - including two Mothers’ Day Kuiper Belt Objects.

Even though forecasting space weather requires a network of sophisticated observatories across Earth - and around the Solar System - citizen science also has a role to play. The Zooniverse crowdsourcing service runs the Old Weather project to uncover historical records of Earth’s weather in ships logs from the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Volunteers reviewing the USS Jeannette's log book found extensive observations of the aurora borealis. British scientists compared these observations to historical record of solar and auroral activity in a paper published in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics (open access DOI: 10.1093/astrogeo/atw075).

Nasa’s tenth Human Exploration Research Analog (Hera) mission launched last week with a crew of four volunteers, none of them professional astronauts. Before astronauts can explore the Solar System, space agencies must understand how to keep them alive and productive. Analog research projects - Earth-based simulations of space missions - help test technologies and procedures as well as crew dynamics. The Hera X crew will simulate a thirty day mission to the asteroid 1620 Geographos. You can follow the mission’s progress at @Hera_Crew_X.

Exploring Deep Space

Scientists with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have released the Open Supernova Catalog. It combines publicly available supernova data from more than a dozen sources including amateur discoveries compiled by the Rochester Academy of Science’s astronomy club. The scientists describe their catalog (arXiv: 1605.0154) and explain how others can pull data for research or citizen science projects.

Spacedotcom ran an advertorial from app company SkySafari software that reviews galaxies - what they are, how to view them in a telescope,… and how to use SkySafari to find them.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The European Space Agency’s Space Education International Workshop will run in October. It is a professional development program for European science educators. Attendees will learn how to incorporate the space sciences in their classrooms and informal education programs. Registration for the five day workshop closes in mid-June.

The Canary Islands is a destination for Sun worshippers and stargazers alike, the New York Times reports. The only tropical destination in Europe (it is a possession of Spain), tourism is a big part of the island’s economy. The calm, clear air above the island also make it a center for European astronomy in the northern hemisphere. The article looks how events like Starmas are bringing astronomy enthusiasts to the island to take advantage of the night skies.

A virtual classroom lets low income students in Illinois learn astronomy from a world-renowned astrophysicist, the Chicago Tribune reported. Students at Cristo Rey St. Martin use the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy to connect with Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory.

Creators of the Loss of the Night app described their crowdsourcing project on Discover Magazine’s citizen science blog. The app lets anyone describe the visibility of stars in the night sky, in the process creating a crowdsourced map of light pollution around the world.

Hampshire College professor Salman Hameed reviewed a documentary about an Iranian girl’s plans to become an astronomer. Sepideh, sixteen years old, takes up astronomy after her father’s death. The documentary Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars follows her attempts to study astronomy over a three year period and shows that, despite cultural differences, “The love of the night sky is also universal.”