Amateur Space Weekly - July 11

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 Articles

Space Makers

Team AL has one member: Canadian maker Erica Tiberia whose rover design made it through the first round of Nasa's Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nasa

Nasa’s Centennial Challenges give makers and students a chance to develop technology for the space agency. Organized into competitions similar to the X-prize, each challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes for teams that hit technological milestones. Bloomberg wrote about the Sample Return Robot Challenge’s round one competition. Five teams of rover-makers won the $5,000 prize and the right to compete in round two for a million dollar prize. Canadian maker Erica Tiberia is the sole member of Team AL and will return to compete in round two.

The Academic High-Altitude Conference gathered professional researchers, educators, and stratospheric ballooning enthusiasts to discuss the latest science and technology of upper atmospheric research. Workshops preceding the conference introduced techniques for conducting high-altitude balloon flights and using balloons to observe next year’s solar eclipse. The Post-Bulletin wrote about Minnesota community college students who presented their cosmic ray research at the conference.

3D printing promises to revolutionize space exploration. Advanced additive manufacturing techniques are already being used to make components for rockets. Beyond 3D, a consulting company, tested one of their 3D printers for future missions to Mars, the New Times reports. One of the Mars Society’s crews at the Mars Desert Research Station evaluated the printer’s ability to make replacement parts and other tools during their simulated Mars mission. The Nasa-sponsored Future Engineers Star Trek Replicator contest asked students to “engineer the future of food in space”. Nasa announced the winners - an Arizona high school student designed a mushroom farm and a Virginia middle school student designed a mini greenhouse.

Amateurs in Space

The MIT-developed Spheres robots use jets of compressed air to move around the International Space Station. Kids around the world learn how to control the Spheres in the Zero Robotics programming competition. Credit: Nasa

The Zero Robotics coding competitions give teenagers around the world a shot at programming robots on the International Space Station. A summer competition for American middle schools is underway right now as the students submit practice code. Finalists will watch their code send Nasa’s Sphere robots through a virtual obstacle course on the space station. The Times-News wrote about Idaho middle schoolers competing in the summer tournament. A simple game of Simon Says introduced the young students to the concept of procedural programming.

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 in the United States and Canada have participated in the SSEP in its six year history. The SSEP’s tenth mission launches into orbit this Fall with experiments from eleven communities. My Central New Jersey spoke with the Kent Place School students whose butterfly experiment will join the mission. Their experiment will study how gravity affects the insect’s metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

Project Possum graduated its latest class of suborbital astronaut candidates. Suborbital rocket companies like Virgin Galactic, Xcor Aerospace, and Blue Origin promise to open a new era of microgravity research. Project Possum is training the people who will conduct that research. The training prepares the candidates to handle both high g-forces and zero gravity. Since none of the suborbital companies has started operating, the graduating astronauts candidates will participate in research and development programs on the ground.

Exploring Earth

Great Britain’s MetOffice needs data from personal weather stations. Timed with the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, the UK’s weather agency called on the public to contribute their own local weather observations to the Weather Observations Website. More sophisticated weather models running on more powerful supercomputers require more data. The MetOffice’s official weather stations are too far apart to create localized weather forecasts. As the MetOffice explained in its blog post, “a range of new measurement devices, including home weather stations, provide the opportunity to increase the amount of data at our disposal, at a relatively low cost.”

A Canadian volunteer helps expand weather-spotting in Quebec, the Montreal Gazette reports. Members of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, & Snow Network (acronymized as Cocorahs) submit daily precipitation reports to help meteorologists create better forecasts and develop assessments of flood risks. The network began in Colorado in 1997 and expanded into Canada in 2011. Volunteer Lewis Poulin explained his interest in the volunteer project to the Montreal Gazette.

Exploring the Solar System

An artist's vision of the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. Credit: Nasa

Nasa’s Juno mission entered orbit around Jupiter last week. Little of the media coverage focused on JunoCam, the spacecraft’s public outreach camera. A global network of amateur astronomers are collecting images of Jupiter to give the Juno mission team context for their observations. One of those amateurs is Filipino astrophotographer Christopher Go spoke about the Juno mission's collaboration with amateurs on the GMA Network. The amateurs submit their images to the JunoCam site where the public can vote on interesting features for the camera to target during Juno’s brief close-approaches. 

Exploring Deep Space

A Cold War-era radio dish now conducts radio astronomy for high school students. The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (Pari) occupies a former military intelligence site in western North Carolina. “The instrument’s use during the DoD days is shrouded in mystery,” Pari Research Director Dan Goldsmith said in a press release (PDF). “We do know one thing for sure. They didn’t want the Soviets to see it.” A team of volunteers repaired the 12-meter dish’s control system and upgraded the electronics to let the dish collect hydrogen emissions at 1420 MHz. Goldsmith explained the radio telescopes new, more peaceful, mission: “It will be made available to students from around the world to examine star formations, stellar nurseries, the motion of the galaxy and the velocity of stars with respect to Earth.”

Minute Physics’ latest video explains gravitational waves and how volunteers with the Einstein@Home distributed computing project help detect them.

Professional astronomy has a centuries-long record of working with amateur to conduct research. Two papers recently posted to the arXiv preprint database highlight how amateurs help the pros:

A global team led by Russian scientists conducted a search for hot Jupiter-class exoplanets. They relied on observations made by American amateur Paul Benni to supplement observations from the Master-II Ural telescope in Russia. “We would like to conclude that amateur wide field observations, such as the RASA setup at Acton Sky Portal, can provide high quality data for discovering exoplanet candidates.” (arXiv: 1607.01894).

American researchers turned to amateurs to help study a binary star system. HR 2142 consists of a bright Be star and a close-orbiting hot subdwarf. The larger star has stripped much of the hydrogen from its smaller companion. The scientists analyzed data from the ultraviolet spectrum collected by space telescopes, but for the H-α spectrum they relied on amateur collected data in the Be Star Spectrum Database. (arXiv: 1607.01829)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Space Academy for Educators is a professional development program for science teachers. The weeklong workshop, conducted near Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center, introduces teachers to Nasa-developed curricula and experiential learning techniques. A simulated space mission caps the week. Middle school science teacher Steven Bacon described his Space Academy experience to the Eagle News. “It was great to meet teachers from all over the world and share ideas and learn more about what they do in the classroom.”

Other News: