Amateur Space Weekly - August 15

Citizen scientists discovering a supernova, volunteers exploring a fake Mars, and teens controlling robots in space are among this week’s headlines from the world of amateur space exploration. Every week I recap headlines from around the world about the growing number of people who take space exploration in their own hands.

  • Space Makers: University rocketry contest announced and volunteer rocketeers analyze recent launch failure.
  • Amateurs in Space: Middle school students control robots in space, ham radio help a CubeSat project, Colorado undergrads work on space projects.
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing weather observations in Britain and the United States.
  • Exploring the Solar System: New citizen science project searches for meteors, and volunteers needed to explore Mars… in Hawai’i.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen scientists discover a superluminal supernova, and Hanny’s Voorwerp is the scientific gift that keeps on giving.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Dark sky parks and space tourism.

Featured News

Space Makers

Spaceport America will host a university rocketry contest next June. The Spaceport America Cup, a rebranding of the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition, will bring an international field of rocketeers to the deserts of New Mexico to launch high performance rockets. The 2016 IREC saw fifty-two teams - including one high school - compete to launch scientific payloads more than 10,000 feet above the Earth.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is an all-volunteer crowdfunded team of rocketeers hoping to launch people on suborbital rocket flights. Their latest small-scale test launch did not go according to plan when the rocket failed to fly as fast and high as planned. A new blog post analyzes the flight telemetry to explain how a faulty valve led to the abbreviated flight.

Amateurs in Space

The Zero Robotics Middle School Tournament concluded last week as students across the United States took control of robots on the International Space Station. The students spent this summer learning how to program the Spheres robots to maneuver through a virtual obstacle course. The finalists saw their code put through the paces as astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka looked on. The Boston Globe wrote about the Massachusetts students who took part. The Exponent Telegram wrote about West Virginia’s young roboteers.

Amateur radio enthusiasts are needed to test a CubeSat communication constellation, Southgate Amateur Radio News Reports. Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology created the Birds project to give graduate students from Ghana, Mongolia, Nigeria and Bangladesh hands-on experience with a space project. The students designed and built 1U CubeSats which astronauts will release from the ISS this year. The radio amateurs are needed to create a global network of ground-based receivers.

As space diversifies beyond the big space agencies so does the kind of people working on space projects. The Denver Post wrote about the undergraduate students overseeing zero-gravity research on the International Space Station. BioServe is a spin off company at the University of Colorado Boulder that employs the school’s students to monitor data from its orbiting laboratories.

Exploring Earth

Britain’s MetOffice crowdsources data from the public’s personal weather station though the Weather Observations Website. Last week Computing Magazine reported that the MetOffice replaced its Google-based cloud service with one from Microsoft. As the Internet of Things promises to expand the types of devices collecting weather data (think cars and stoplights) the MetOffice felt that the Azure platform was better prepared to handle the increased load.

Cocorahs is a more analog weather crowdsourcing project. Every day, volunteers across the United States and Canada report rain and snowfall levels. This helps meteorologists, emergency planners, and others better understand how weather varies between the National Weather Service’s widely-separated weather stations. Illinois Farmer Today interviewed some of the volunteer weather-spotters who help make their communities safer.

Exploring the Solar System

Software has trouble recognizing the echoes of meteors in radio data like this, but it's easy enough for people once you know what to look for. Radio Meteor Zoo hopes to crowdsource meteor classifications from thousands of citizen scientists. Credit: Radio Meteor Zoo

Radio Meteor Zoo, a new citizen science project, lets anyone detect meteors. The project uses data from the Belgian Radio Meteors project (acronymed Brams), a collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers. Radio dishes scattered across Belgium detect radio signals bouncing off meteors’ ionized trails. Forward radio scattering works day and night and in all kinds of weather. But the resulting spectrograms are too fuzzy for software to work with. The human volunteers review the radar data and flag any potential meteors.

Do you have what it takes to be a Martian astronaut… in Hawai’i? A simulated Mars base sits on the slopes of Mauna Lea, a Hawai’ian volcano that is geologically similar to the red planet. Volunteer “astronauts” join the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project (acronymed Hi-Seas) to help scientists understand small team dynamics in the face of isolation. The next two missions will run for eight months each. Applicants must meet the basic requirements of Nasa’s Astronaut Candidate Program but do not need to be working in the space industry.

A French astronomer relied on an amateur observatory in New Zealand, the Otago Daily Times reported. The Dunedin Astronomical Society’s observatory happened to lie beneath the shadow cast by an asteroid as it passed in front of a star. Timing these occultations lets astronomers study the size and shape of Solar System objects too small to see in a telescope. In this case Paris Observatory astronomer Francois Colas wanted to study the asteroid Chariklo, the only asteroid known to have its own ring system.

Exploring Deep Space

Hanny's Voorwerp (in green) glows from the energy once pouring into it from a nearby galaxy. New X-ray data (white) helps a team of scientists understand the interaction between the galaxy's central black hole and the surrounding intergalactic medium. Credit: X-ray: Nasa/CXC/ETH Zurich/L. Sartori et al, Optical: Nasa/STScI

A glowing cloud of intergalactic gas discovered by a citizen scientist continues to support new science. Shortly after the Galaxy Zoo project began crowdsourcing a catalog of galactic shapes one of its participants spotted a strange green blob. School teacher Hanny van Arkel asked the Galaxy Zoo forum what the object, or “voorwerp” in Dutch, might be. That simple question led to a global scientific research effort. Scientists continue to study Hanny’s Voorwerp, this time with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Data from the space telescope lets them study how the radiation streaming from a nearby galaxy’s black hole shapes the surrounding intergalactic environment. (arXiv: 1601.07550)

Citizen scientists with Supernova Hunters helped discover a superluminous supernova. Fresh data from the Pan-Starrs1 telescope flows into the project’s system every week, giving people around the world a shot at discovering an exploding star. In an email to supporters principal investigator Darryl Wright wrote:

Your classifications helped us discover a superluminous supernova in last week’s data! Thanks to a massive effort, all of the data was classified within 24 hours and in time for PESSTO. This new object is known as SN 2016els and is now in the follow-up queue for PESSTO, which means we will continue to gather data on it. This is a rare find as only about 50 superluminous supernovae have ever been discovered! By studying this supernova in detail we hope to help explain what drives these explosions to be 10-100 times brighter than normal supernovae.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

As people turned out for the Perseid meteor shower, several reporters wrote about the growing popularity of dark sky parks. CBS reported from the Grand Canyon which became the twelfth US national park to receive dark sky certification. The Upper Michigan Source wrote about a campaign to seek dark sky certification for Presque Isle Park. Pennsylvania’s Cherry Spring Park has two dedicated astronomy viewing areas, the Columbus Dispatch reports. The Astronomy Observation Field has limited access and strict rules regarding light. The Night Sky Public Viewing Area is easy to get to but people are still asked not to use flashlights.

Dark skies have both economic and artistic benefits. El Español wrote about the role astronomy tourism plays in the Canary Islands and Chile. Nearly three quarters of the 250,000 visitors to La Palma cite stargazing as part of their reason for traveling to the island. Australian astrophotographer Dylan O’Donnell has been recognized worldwide thanks to the dark skies over his Byron Bay home, ABC News reports.

American University of Sharjah professor Nidhal Guessoum asks whether suborbital space tourism is an “extravagant idea”. I suppose the answer to that question in the United Arab Emirates may be different from other places.