Amateur Space Weekly - June 13

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:

Space Makers

Nasa kicked off its Sample Return Robot Challenge last week. The program lets students, small businesses, and backyard tinkerers develop an autonomous rover to complete a simulated mission to Mars. Five teams completed the Level 1 challenge and will have a chance to compete in the Level 2 competition at summer’s end.

Microsoft will help put mass-produced satellite technology in the hands of British students and makers. The technology developed by SatAppsCatapult turns the BBC micro:bit controller into a sensor platform. Data collected by the devices can be stored in a Microsoft Azure-based cloud service.

The amateur Near Space explorers at Bovine Aerospace explained how to send a solar-heated balloon into the stratosphere without using helium. Solar balloons offer several advantages over traditional helium weather balloons. Helium is expensive, so projects can save hundreds of dollars. On top of that solar balloons stay in the stratosphere as long as the Sun is up which lets missions run for up to twelve hours. The downside is that the balloon will drift that much farther so requires more planning to get just the right weather conditions. 

Amateurs in Space

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps communities - 134 so far - send research projects to the International Space Station. Its seventh mission recently returned to Earth with experiments originally destroyed in last year’s SpaceX launch “mishap”. Florida sixth graders finally got the chance to study how cottonseeds’ growth might be impacted by time in zero gravity. The SSEP’s eighth mission will launch into orbit later this summer. Brooklyn Daily wrote about the students at Mary White Ovington School whose experiment was picked by a review panel for the trip to space. New Jersey seventh graders will send a butterfly chrysalis to see where microgravity affects the insect’s development, Patch reports

An innovative new DNA research technology was tested in space for the first time - by a teenager. Anna-Sophia Boguraev won the Genes in Space competition for the right to conduct research using the crowdfunded miniPCR instrument. Her proof-of-concept experiment will open the doors for commercial and academic DNA research in orbit.

Exploring Earth

Photographer Greg McNevin created his latest work at the intersection of art, making, and radioactive fallout. The Ardunio Blog explains how the artist hacked together a radiation detector, an Arduino processor, and an LED wand to map radiation levels in regions surrounding the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants.

America’s weather service relies on networks of volunteer weather-watchers. Despite having sophisticated weather-monitoring technology, the National Weather Service can only afford a few thousand ground-based weather stations. That’s a problem in a country as large as the United States since weather happens at a hyperlocal level. Several interviews with NWS meteorologists highlighted the importance of public volunteers. The Williston Herald reported from a SkyWarn training class where North Dakota volunteers learned how to report severe storms. At the edge of a weather radar’s range the beam is thousands of feet above the ground. Storm spotters give meteorologists “ground truth” that helps improve warnings and forecasts. The Treasure Coast Palm reported on the NWS Cooperative Observer Program. Thousands of volunteers - the “backbone” of the NWS monitoring system - record temperature and rainfall data every day to fill in the gaps between official weather stations.

The United Kingdom’s MetOffice has begun collecting public weather reports. Fife Today reports on a primary school that will connect its weather station to the MetOffice’s Weather Observation Website. The pilot program will let schools combine their own local data with the WOW’s national data to enhance science education. As the program expands, MetOffice scientists hope the extra data will help refine weather forecasts.

Exploring the Solar System

The American Meteor Society collected more than 400 public reports of a daylight fireball over the midwestern United States. Credit: American Meteor Society

The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla wrote about JunoCam, one of the instruments on Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter. Scientists will use the camera to study the giant planet’s atmosphere but with a twist. The public will help decide what objects to study. Lakdawalla’s piece explains the orbital and technical aspects of the mission that limit the number of pictures the JunoCam can take. It also explains why amateur astronomers here on Earth will contribute important observations that Juno cannot beat for most of its time in orbit around Jupiter.

A recent preprint (arXiv: 1605.07883) demonstrates the power of amateur participation in Jupiter science. Five years of amateur observations let a pro-am team study the evolution of a wave pattern in one the planet-circling jets in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Amateur comet-hunters have more chances to find near-dormant comets in the asteroid belt. The Comet Hunters citizen science project asks volunteers to spot the faint traces of gasses streaming from these distant objects.

French scientists will rely on amateurs to find meteorites, Nature reports. The scientists officially launched Fripon, a network of all-sky video cameras. It will monitor the night sky to record any large meteors that fall over France. Tracking the meteor in video from multiple cameras will let the scientists triangulate a region in which meteorites might have fallen. That area will be too big for a handful of scientists to search which is where the Vigie Ciel project comes in. The network of amateur astronomers and meteorite enthusiasts will fan out to search for the meteorites.

The Polish Fireball Network performs the same function in Central Europe. A recent preprint (arXiv: 1605.06283) describes how the pro-am network traced meteor fireballs’ origins to a near earth asteroid.

The Recon project announced its summer observation campaign for Kuiper Belt Objects. The professionally-led project has enlisted 60 communities in the western United States to make observations of these objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Exploring Deep Space

Comparison of the latest exoplanet discoveries to more familiar planets. Undergraduate student Michelle Kunimoto discovered the planets in data from the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: University of British Columbia

A Canadian undergraduate student discovered four new planets. University of British Columbia student Michelle Kunimoto mined data from Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope to find previously undiscovered traces of planets - one Mercury-sized, two Earth-sized, and one Neptune-sized. This last exoplanet orbits within its star’s habitable zone which would allow liquid water to exist on the planet’s moons. Astronomy Magazine interviewed Kunimoto and her advisor Jaymie Matthews.

Sky & Telescope explains how amateur astronomers can see the latest supernovae. The easiest to spot is SN2016coj in the galaxy NGC 4125. The Type 1a supernova is bright enough for amateurs to see in affordable 8-inch (203mm) telescopes. SN2016cok in the galaxy M66 is much fainter, requiring at least a 24-inch (800mm) telescope.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The Grand Canyon National Park is on its way to becoming an official Dark Sky Park. America’s National Park Service and the International Dark Sky Association announced plans to replace the thousands of lights along the canyon’s rim. The new LED bulbs will emit less light in a more focused way to reduce the amount of light leaking away into the night sky. The NPS plans to complete the project in time for the Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial in 2019.

Sometimes it’s the small things. Appalachian State University astronomy professor, writing in the News & Observer, explained how his institution’s course registration policies may limit the number of students who choose to major in astronomy. The first-come-first-served policy means the introductory astronomy course fills before incoming first-year students arrive on campus. These students must wait until their sophomore year, by which time they have chosen to pursue other majors.