Amateur Space Weekly - July 18

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: I interviewed amateur astronomer Christopher Go about how he helps Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter
  • Space Makers: US rocket champs win international competition, Kickstarting a cubesat ion engine, India’s student rover makers, Virginia students design camera for Nasa, Canadian high school’s Near Space flight, design students create hab module for Nasa.
  • Amateurs in Space: 3D printing in orbit, West Virginia middle school robot coders, New York teen to study aging in space, SpaceX and NanoRacks carry student research into orbit.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Australian astrophotography contest, astronomy research for Puerto Rico’s teens, Supernova Hunters citizen science program launches, published research uses amateur data.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Crowdfunding campaign to restore Nasa mobile observatory, New Zealand to become home of cubesat launches, public observatory opens in Wisconsin, Qatar expands astronomy outreach programs.

Featured News

Space Makers

Middle school students from Bellevue, Washington, became America's rocketry champions earlier this summer. Last week team Space Potatoes travelled to Great Britain to compete against British, French, and Japanese champions in the International Rocketry Challenge - and won! Credit: Raytheon

Washington middle school students won the International Rocketry Challenge. Team Space Potatoes won the Team America Rocketry Challenge earlier this year, making them America’s representative at the IRC. There they competed agains French, Japanese and British champions. "Representing the entire country was really intimidating," Space Potatoes team captain, 12-year old Mikaela Ikeda, said in the press release. "Luckily, we had each other for support and everyone did their jobs perfectly!" Science teacher Jim Petoskey explained the team’s success: “With each group launching rockets around 20 times, we had 60 launches of data to guide our decisions at the national launch in Washington, D.C.  More data meant more accurate results.”

A new Kickstarter campaign asks for your help building a prototype ion engine for a mission to the Moon and beyond. The campaign comes from Team Miles, a group of makers building a cubesat for Nasa’s CubeQuest Challenge. [I interviewed Team Miles’ founder Wes Faler earlier this year.] The contests asks teams to design a lunar cubesat that demonstrates communications or propulsion in deep space. The campaign’s $30,000 goal will fund Team Miles’ latest prototype.

India’s SRM University sent its students to test Mars rovers in the United States. They took part in the Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge which tasks students to develop a wheeled robot that could assist astronauts on future missions to the red planet. The SRM University students were one of thirty teams chosen to attend the competition. Even though this was their first year competing, the students finished in ninth place.

Virginia high school students completed a project for Nasa’s Langley Research Center, the Daily Press reports. The space center’s engineers and scientists have never had a live view from inside their thermal-vacuum chambers. These chambers simulate the temperature and atmospheric pressures of other worlds - and even deep space. The students built their $3,000 video camera using off-the-shelf components.

Canadian teens' Near Space balloon, once lost, has been found, the Chronicle Herald reports. Students at a Nova Scotia high school formed the Annapolis Royal Space Agency to conduct stratospheric balloon flights. A setting mixup on their latest flight caused the balloon’s GoPro camera to produce 27,000 pictures instead of video from its journey into the stratosphere.

Undergraduate architecture and design students explore the nature of space habitats, Fast Company reports. With feedback from astronauts they developed a 2-section hab for the journey from Earth to Mars. Touches like greenhouses in the kitchen and LED lighting that follows the day-night cycle balance the utilitarian nature of spaceflight.

Amateurs in Space

Astronauts on the International Space Station reinstalled the zero-gravity 3D printer. The fresh round of print runs will produce sample parts in microgravity which will then be compared to the same parts printed in full gravity. Made in Space developed the printer as a prototype for its commercial printer, the Additive Manufacturing Facility. Sponsored by hardware retailer Lowes, the AMF will let businesses, researchers, and the public print objects in the unique zero-g environment of the space station.

West Virginia middle school students visited Nasa’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility to learn coding, the Preston County News reports. The students have joined the Zero Robotics coding competition. American middle school students spend the summer writing code to control robots on the International Space Station. The code runs in a simulator until the finals when Nasa uploads the code to the robots in orbit.

Genes in Space announced that a New York high school student will send research to the International Space Station. Julian Rubinfien will study what happens to telomeres in zero-gravity. Telomeres are the bits of our DNA that lead to aging. Rubinfien’s research will help explain how astronauts age faster in space. Genes in Space is an annual competition that selects a student to conduct DNA research using the station’s Mini-PCR laboratory.

Twenty-two student research projects reached orbit on last night’s SpaceX launch, NanoRacks announced. This was the second (or third) chance for the Casis National Design Competition’s five student experiments. Previous shots at space ended in disaster when launchers from Orbital/ATK and SpaceX exploded. High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware sponsored a student experiment to study the crystallization of silver nitrite. The other fifteen experiments come from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. This is the SSEP’s eighth mission into space.

Exploring Deep Space

An Australian astrophotography competition announced its finalists. The Central West Astronomical Society conducts the annual "David Malin Awards”. Astrophotographers around the world submitted images in eight categories: Deep Sky, Wide-Field, Nightscapes, Solar System, Scientific Animated Sequences, Aesthetic Animated Sequences, "Light Pollution: The Bad and the Beautiful”, and Junior (18 years old or younger). The winner will be announced at the 2016 CWAS Astrofest near the Parkes Observatory.

The Arecibo Observatory opened registration for its education outreach program, El Vocero reports (in Spanish). The Arecibo Observatory Space Academy pairs high school students with undergraduate astronomy students to design and conduct a research project. Besides reinforcing the students’ science and math skills, it also improves the students’ English-language skills specifically in the fields of science.

Zooniverse launched the Supernova Hunters crowdsourcing project. It asks citizen scientists to spot potential supernovae in images from telescopes. The images are extremely noisy which makes it difficult for automated software to recognize an actual supernova.

Several new research papers relied on amateur and citizen science:

  • The Galaxy Zoo team refined its Galaxy Zoo 2 database to remove confirmation bias. (arXiv: 1607.01019)
  • The International Astronomical Union published a post-game analysis of its exoplanet naming contest. (arXiv: 1607.00304)
  • Scientists in Sweden proposed a citizen science project to search for Dyson Spheres. (arXiv: 1606.08992)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

A new crowdfunding campaign wants to convert an abandoned Nasa mobile observatory into a tool for public outreach and K12 education. This is the second crowdfunding campaign for St. Petersburg College professor Antonio Paris. His first campaign raised money to purchase a radio telescope for the college. The new campaign raises funds to restore a mobile observatory that Nasa once used to track rocket launches. The restoration will let Paris use the observatory for education and public outreach.

A community in New Zealand will soon host a cubesat revolution, the New Zealand Herald reports. The Mahia Peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean from a remote corner of New Zealand’s North Island. The primarily Maori population worked closely with Rocket Lab to become the startup company’s launch site. The rockets will small satellites like cubesats exclusively. That should break the logjam that has limited the number of cubesats to reach orbit. The Herald’s article looks at the impact the deal will have on the local community.

A Wisconsin school district opens its high school observatory to the public, the Winona Daily News reports. One of the district’s school board members is an amateur astronomer. He offered to donate the telescopes if the school district paid for the observatory.

One of Qatar’s research institutes has expanded its astronomy outreach programs, the Gulf Times of Qatar reports. It has sponsored the country’s first entry in the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics.