Amateur Space Weekly - July 25

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: Crowdfunding astronomy and outreach, amateurs supporting Nasa’s Juno mission, DIY satellites and more.
  • Space Makers: Missouri teens building a satellite, stratospheric balloon projects in Australia and the UK, amateur rocketeers, inviting more women into coding, and a proposed contest to program a Nasa robot.
  • Amateurs in Space: Grant Imahara’s contest to 3D print things in space, an Idaho middle school wants to control robots on the space station, and student microgravity research is ready for launch into space.
  • Exploring Earth: Storm-spotting networks let volunteers generate data meteorologists can’t get themselves.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Texas teens will get their own space program.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen scientists discover supernovae, pro astronomers wants the public to help find exoplanets, plus new science papers from citizen science projects.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: JPL’s workshop for future science teachers, a young Pakistani shares her love of astronomy, why cities must choose the right LED street lights, and yes the Kerbal Space Program can teach you rocket science.

Featured News

Space Makers

The Kansas City Star reports that Missouri high school students will launch a satellite next year. More than a science and technology project, students in The Raytown Mission to Space: IGNITE Satellite Program will develop skills in marketing, photography, and other business aspects of a space program. One catch: their launch contract is with Interorbital Systems, a company that has yet to launch a rocket.

Fedscoop wrote about Nasa’s efforts to encourage more women to begin coding. The space agency’s early research indicated that they needed to create a more collaborative and welcoming environment than typical hackathons provide. While the original International Space Apps Challenge only saw a 20% female participation rate, women comprise 90% of Nasa’s year-long Datanauts program.

Nasa's Robotic Systems Technology Branch developed Valkyrie to assist astronauts as they explore the Solar System. A new contest will let the public code Valkyrie to repair a Mars habitat. Credit: Nasa

Robot Watney needs no potatoes. Nasa is planning a coding contest that will ask the public to program its Valkyrie humanoid robot to repair a Mars habitat. The space agency’s Centennial Challenges program brings students, small businesses, and the maker community into its technology development efforts. Nasa issued a Request for Information to get feedback on the contest’s rules.

The stratosphere is the closest to space that many people will ever get. Fortunately, high-altitude ballooning is much cheaper and easier than suborbital rocketry. Time Out Sydney reports that Australian artists recently sent a project into Near Space. They designed the payload structure to produce sound as it fell into the thickening atmosphere below. Secondary school students in the United Kingdom sent a balloon thirty-four kilometers above Sheffield. Unfortunately, the Scunthorpe Telegraph reports, winds carried the balloon off course and it landed in a chicken farm.

The past week saw several news reports about amateur rocketry. The all-volunteer Copenhagen Suborbitals had a mishap during its latest rocket launch. They told Denmark’s TV2 that the systems being tested worked, but their next rocket Nexø 2 could be delayed. The Washington middle school’s win at the International Rocketry Challenge got coverage from Spacedotcom and their local Bellevue Reporter. And finally an amateur rocket-maker modded a raspberry pi to make inflight videos of his high-performance rocket launches

Amateurs in Space

Former Mythbuster Grant Imahara launched the ISS Project Contest that could let you 3D print devices on the International Space Station. The rules are not too strict. Just make something “useful” for the station’s astronauts - and make sure your design won’t kill anyone. If this sounds like the contest for you, here are a couple of other resources for you. The High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware program provides guidance for teens developing replacement parts for the space station. Nasa’s Technical Reports Server includes an analysis of the Made in Space 3D printer’s first print job.

Idaho middle schools want to take control of Nasa robots… in space. The Bonner County Daily Bee reported on the students participating in the annual Zero Robotics Middle School Tournament. They learn how to write code that will send the Sphere robots through a virtual obstacle course. After a series of elimination rounds the finalists will watch as their code is uploaded to space and the robots obey their commands.

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 eighth mission will send experiments from fourteen communities into orbit this summer. The Idaho Statesman spoke with middle school students who will study an enzyme that influences bone growth. Twenty-one communities will send student research into space on the SSEP’s ninth mission. The Bullard Banner News spoke with Texas teenagers who will study a potato’s resistance to potato blight when in zero gravity. (Mark Watney didn’t have to deal with blight - how did Andy Weir miss that one?)

Exploring Earth

Arizona storm-spotters help improve local weather forecasts, KTVK reports. More than 3,000 volunteers report sandstorms, thunderstorms and other extreme weather events to meteorologists at the National Weather Service. They are part of the weather agency’s Skywarn program, a 400,000 member network of people trained to monitor storms safely. Weather happens on such a local scale that the NWS’ widely-separated weather stations cannot detect all storms. The volunteers help fill in the gaps.

Another weather-spotting network, Cocorahs, is recruiting volunteers in Illinois WAND reports. Participants set up a rain gage in their back yards. Every day they report the amount of rain or snow that accumulated over the next twenty-four hours. The high resolution database of precipitation data turns the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow network into a valuable resource for meteorologists and emergency planners.

Exploring the Solar System

Secondary school students in San Antonio, Texas, are getting their own space program. The Lunar Caves Analog Test Sites program will boost the science, math, and technology skills of at-risk youth through hands-on projects such as high-altitude balloon flights and the exploration of local caves. The unique geography of the Texas Hill Country includes caves similar to skylight caves on the Moon. The program builds upon the Wex Foundation’s Lunar Ecosystem and Architectural Prototype, a commercial program to develop lunar exploration technology.

Exploring Deep Space

The Supernova Hunters citizen science project discovered thirteen candidates in its first week. Volunteers review images from the Pan-Starrs1 observatory. Perched on a volcanic peak in Hawai’i, the telescope scans the sky every night to search for asteroids and comets that could threaten Earth. Comparing images over time also lets scientists search for supernovas. Citizen scientists outperform automated software when it comes to reviewing the messy images. But sometimes they do too good a job. One week into the project and they have already cleared through half of the original dataset.

Project Panoptes hopes amateur astronomers will help expand its search for exoplanets. Plos Blog contributor Kristin Butler interviewed the project’s founders. They designed an inexpensive telescope system that can search for worlds orbiting other stars. In the world of professional $5000 is real cheap. (Many amateur astronomers for that matter spend several times that much to build their personal observatories.) Project Panoptes is recruiting astronomy clubs, schools, and individual amateurs to join their network.

Radio Galaxy Zoo’s citizen scientists recently helped discover a cluster of galaxies. Science Network Western Australia spoke with Radio Galaxy Zoo scientists about what the amateur discovery means for science.

Citizen science is not sciency PR. It is a way for the public to help create science that professional researchers cannot do on their own. Two new papers demonstrate the power of crowdsourcing. 

Disk Detectives asks volunteers to evaluate images from Nasa’s Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer for signs of young stellar objects and stellar debris disks. Scientists want to understand these early stages of planetary formation. Their first paper explains how citizen scientists identified thirty-seven potential debris disks. Early follow-up observations determined that one of these stars, HD 74389, is the first debris disk surrounding a star with a white dwarf companion. (arXiv: 1607.05713)

Galaxy Zoo is the longest-lived citizen science project at Zooniverse. Volunteers review images from space telescopes to classify the shape of galaxies. The 900,000 galaxy catalog has spawned dozens of research papers. The latest paper explains how the Galaxy Zoo science team has refined the GalaxyZoo2 dataset. It turns out that higher rates of star formation makes galaxies with many spiral arms are bluer than galaxies with only two arms. That shift in light throws off red-shift calculations of distances. (DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stw1588)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory conducts an annual workshop for pre-service science educators. The workshop is part of the space agency’s effort to increase the number of minority science teachers, the Minority University Research and Education Project. The fifty undergraduate students learned how to use Nasa resources to enhance the science curriculum.

Seventeen year old Norina Shah promotes amateur astronomy in Pakistan, the Express Tribune reports. Her home province of Balochistan has a conservative culture that discourages education for women. Shah has earned a global reputation including recognition by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Cities are learning the downside to LED-based lighting, KOSU reports. The bluish light emitted by many LED streetlights actually makes it harder to see at night. It can also have negative effects on human health and wildlife.

Cosmoquest shared a video that explains how the Kerbal Space Program can help teach physics and rocket science. Software developer and amateur astronomer Scott Manley frequently speaks with teachers and parents about gaming and education. He made this video to reach a wider audience.