Amateur Space Weekly - June 20

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: Student rocketeers, amateur satellite makers and more.
  • Space Makers: Rovie McRoverface wins Nasa contest, student-designed multitool printed in space, Nasa's Rocket Week, West Virginia middle school students prepare to control robots in space.
  • Amateurs in Space: Teenagers' zero-g research heading for the launch pad and returning from space.
  • Exploring Earth: Navajo and Hopi rainfall data to help drought forecasts, smartphones as seismic sensors, learning data science using space data, Nasa's Student Airborne Research Program kicks off.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Swiss amateurs expand meteor-spotting network, the Mars Together Global Summit, citizen scientists crunch 5 million images of Mars, Chinese public volunteer for analog research project.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Portuguese amateur astronomer helps discover planet that's a little bit Tatooine and a little bit Endor, galaxy cluster named after Russian citizen scientists.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Hawai'i celebrates astronomy outreach program, could space tourists get seasick?

Featured News

Space Makers

The onsite team could not touch Rovie McRoverface during the contest. All commands had to come telerobotically from the University of Oklahoma. Credit: National Institute of Aerospace

Rovie McRoverface won a Nasa lunar rover design contest. (As it should) Undergraduates at the University of Oklahoma entered the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage Exploration Robo-Ops competition. The Nasa-sponsored contest challenges university teams to develop a tele-operated rover that could enhance human exploration of other worlds. Students in Oklahoma controlled Rovie McRoverface as it traversed the “rock yard” at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The rover from Oklahoma smashed all previous records by 50 percent,” Nasa’s Pat Troutman said. “It was based on a Russian lunar rover from the 1960s, but with 21st century technology. It had a flawless performance and has opened a new paradigm for teleoperated rovers."

A student saw his design for an astronaut multi-tool made real on the International Space Station’s 3D printer. Robert Hillan entered his Mulitpurpose Precision Maintenance Tool in the 2014 Future Engineers Space Tools design competition. Two years later, and now an engineering student at the University of Alabama Huntsville, Hillan watched a live feed as astronaut Jeff Williams started the space station’s Additive Manufacturing Facility. "I am extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to design something for fabrication on the space station," Hillan said in the Nasa press release. The latest Futures Engineers competition, Think Outside the Box, asks students to design a 3D-printed object that expands to become larger than the AMF. Students have one month to submit their proposals.

Rocket Week is underway at Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility, the home of the space agency's suborbital research program. Science teachers will attend the Wallops Rocket Academy for Teachers to learn the basics of rocket science. University and community college students participating in the RockOn and RockSat-C programs will develop scientific payloads for microgravity or high altitude research. Eighty small cubes will house experiments designed by middle school students from across the United States. All of these experiments will ride one of Nasa’s Terrier-Improved Orion suborbital rockets nearly seventy miles above the Virginia coastline.

West Virginia middle school students will get their first shot at controlling robots on the International Space Station, the Preston County News and Journal reports. The state joined the Zero Robotics coding competition which challenges students to write code to control the space station’s Spheres robots. Meanwhile Australia’s expanded high school participation is wrapping up its regional qualifiers this month in preparation for the 2017 international competition in January.

In other news about space makers:

Amateurs in Space

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program helps communities send middle and high school research projects to the International Space Station. More than sixty-one thousand students have participated in the SSEP in its six year history. The 2016 SSEP National Conference will convene in Washington, DC, next week. Hosted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the conference lets student teams present project proposals and results from their zero-g research. The Watertown Daily News carried a story about a team of sixth graders whose cottonseed growth experiment travelled into space in April. Jersey City Public Schools wrote about the sixty-two student research proposals submitted to the community review panel. The three finalists will submit revised proposals to the SSEP national review panel. One of those experiments will travel into space next spring. The Katy News wrote about a Texas high school’s flatworm growth experiment that will ride into orbit this fall.

Exploring Earth

Navajo and Hopi volunteers are mapping rainfall on tribal lands. The US Department of Agriculture purchased seventy-two rain gauges to let the volunteers join the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow network (Cocorahs). The data these volunteers collect will help improve drought and flood forecasts.

A smartphone app that crowdsources earthquake data was featured by the US public radio show Science Friday. While the seismographs professional scientists use to monitor fault zones provide high quality data, budgets limit the number of stations in seismic sensor networks. The MyShake program hopes to fill in the gaps by collecting data from thousands - or millions - of smartphones. Even though the data quality is not as good, the volume of data provides insights seismologists cannot get any other way. MyShake is available now for Android-based phones. An iPhone version is in the works.

Internet of Things thought leader Ajit Jaokar kicked off a program to teach data science using data collected from space. The Association of Space Explorers, an astronaut-only organization, awarded his non-profit Countdown Institute research time on an Ardusat remote sensing satellite. Participating teens will use regression algorithms to turn space-based infrared temperature data into cloud cover predictions.

Thirty-two undergraduate students will spend this summer conducting airborne Earth science research for Nasa. They have joined the Student Airborne Research Program, an eight week summer research program for promising undergraduates. The students spend the first two weeks at Nasa’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. During their time in the California desert, the students will ride a Nasa DC-8 research aircraft to collect atmospheric and remote sensing data. The final six weeks will be spent at the University of California Irvine where they will analyze the data and conduct their own research projects.

Exploring the Solar System

Amateur astronomers will extend a French meteor-spotting network into Switzerland, Le Temps reports (in French). A team of scientists and amateur astronomers created the Fripon video meteor network to monitor the skies above France for fireballs - large meteors that often produce meteorites. Scientists use the videos to triangulate the region where meteorites might have landed and turn to teams of amateur meteorite-hunters in the Vigie-Ciel network to conduct the search. Four Swiss amateur observatories will host Fripon video cameras, physics teacher and comet discoverer Michel Ory told Le Temps.

One hundred and eighty high school students from France, Singapore, and Texas visited Nasa to design a mission to Mars. Hosted by Space Center Houston, the visitors center for Nasa’s Johnson Space Center, the Mars Together Global Summit fosters a cross-cultural exchange across three continents while reinforcing the importance of science and math education. Cité de l’espace wrote (in French) about the French students’ visit to Nasa.

Citizen scientists have analyzed more than five million images of the Martian surface. They are part of Planet Four, the crowdsourcing project that maps seasonal features at the Martian south pole. More than 135,800 volunteers have participated since the project’s launch.

China’s space agency asked the Chinese public to help its plans for human spaceflight China-dot-org-dot-cn reported. The Astronaut Center of China is conducting a six month analog experiment to study the psychological and social effects that astronauts will experience while isolated in a habitat far from Earth. Nasa conducts similar experiments through its Human Exploration Research Analog program. More than two thousand Chinese citizens applied for the four analog astronaut spots in the project

Exploring Deep Space

A Portuguese amateur astronomer helped discover a Tatooine-class planet orbiting a binary star system. Joao Gregorio is a member of the Kelt Follow-up Network, a global collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers to observe exoplanets discovered by the professional Kelt exoplanet transit survey. This time, however, Gregorio and other members of the follow-up network answered a call from Nasa. Back in 2011 scientists at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center and San Diego State University first spotted a planet in data from the Kepler Space Telescope. They had detected it two more times by 2014, but that was not enough to rule out other explanations. The data provided by Kelt’s pro-am team led to last week’s announcements (Nasa, SDSU) that confirmed Kepler-1647b. “As an amateur being involved in the KELT follow-up network giving my contribution to the discovery of ‘new worlds’ is amazing,” Gregorio said in the Lehigh University press release, “I’m very proud to be able to contribute.” The Jupiter-sized planet orbits a pair of stars similar to the Sun in a three-Earth-year orbit. This places it within the star system’s habitable zone. The potential for an Endor-style habitable moon orbiting a Tatooine-like star system was catnip for the media, but scientists have a more practical interest in the discovery. “Habitability aside, Kepler-1647 b is important because it is the tip of the iceberg of a theoretically predicted population of large, long-period circumbinary planets,” astronomer William Welsh said in the SDSU press release. The research paper will be published by the Astrophysical Journal. An arXiv preprint (1512.00189) is available now.

A cluster of galaxies has been named after two Russian citizen scientists. The Matorny-Terentev Cluster RGZ-CL J0823.2+0333 was discovered by volunteers with Radio Galaxy Zoo. The crowdsourced astronomy project relies on citizen scientists to match sets of data from two distinct kinds of observatories. Radio telescopes observe the jets of particles streaming from black holes at the center of galaxies. Infrared telescopes observe the galaxies themselves. The trick is matching one with the other. Western Sydney University astronomer Ray Norris explained in The Conversation how Ivan Terentev and Tim Matorny’s discovery of a rare “wide angle tail galaxy” led to the cluster’s discovery. The open access research paper is available at the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (doi: 10.1093/mnras/stw1067).

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The University of Hawai’i celebrated its astronomy outreach program’s tenth anniversary. The Hawai’i Student/Teacher Astronomy Research program (Histar) engages the state’s students and science teachers in hands-on astronomy research. A week long workshop teaches participants the science of astronomy and how to use telescopes to observe variable stars, exoplanets, asteroids, and more. The students spend the rest of the summer conducting their own research program with their teacher and a UH astronomy mentor. Histar alumni have received more than $400,000 in scholarships in science fair contests.

Blue Origin conducted its latest reusable suborbital rocket test. This one evaluated what would happen if one of the capsule’s three parachutes failed to open. Although the test was successful, the video raises questions about its tourist appeal. As the drone chutes open, the capsule wallows dramatically (something the announcers says in “normal”). If the passengers did not get sick in microgravity, they may get seasick during the descent.