Amateur Space Weekly - August 2

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

Space Makers

One hundred undergraduate interns at United Launch Alliance and Ball Aerospace successfully launched a fifty foot rocket. The flight set a world record for the largest sport rocket ever launched. Colorado primary and secondary school students designed experiments that rode on the rocket.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is an all-volunteer team of rocketeers based out of Denmark. Running on public donations, they are developing a rocket that will launch a person on a suborbital flight across the Von Karmen line into space. Last week they launched its Nexø1 test rocket. Unfortunately the launch failed due to a faulty valve. It seems to have kept the liquid oxygen from flowing freely to the rocket’s engine. Addressing the issue will delay the launch of its Nexø2 rocket until next year.

The National Association of Rocketry held its Annual Meet last week, the News Leader reported. The NAR is the world’s oldest hobby rocket organization and is largely responsible for model rocketry being the safe hobby that it is. The Annual Meet includes sport rocket competitions, vendor demonstrations, and rocket-building workshops.

Britain’s amateur satellite organization Amsat-UK held its annual International Space Colloquium last week. Sessions included reviews of current satellite projects, workshops to build personal ground stations, and the use of amateur satellites for education outreach. Videos of the presentations are already on Amsat-UK’s YouTube page. Amsat-UK also announced that it will distribute “Getting Started with Amateur Satellites” in the United Kingdom.

Amateurs in Space

An experiment designed by Canadian students will study the effect of microgravity on the growth of oyster mushrooms. Credit: Aron Tsehaye/Ryerson University

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. Undergraduates at Ryerson University sent a mushroom growth experiment into orbit. Biology student Nathan Battersby organized the project. “You always think that only governments get to play in space,” Battersby said in a press release, “so it was cool to think that Ryerson could actually have a part in learning what’s out there.” The project was designed from the beginning to include local teenagers. “We were able to get high schoolers to work with our undergrads and learn from them and do something that’s different from what they’re studying in textbooks,” said Emily Agard, director of science communication, outreach and public engagement. 

Exploring Earth

Citizen scientists are mapping radiation levels in Japan, the Los Angeles Times reports. More than 50,000,000 measurements have been submitted to the Safecast citizen science project. Founded by an MIT scientist after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the project now collects measurements around the world.

Exploring the Solar System

Fireballs in the Sky was short listed for best Australian science engagement program. The project uses a smartphone app to crowdsource reports of fireballs, large meteors that could generate meteorites.

The Slooh robotic telescope service helps the Rosetta mission. Slooh members can schedule observations of the comet 67P C/G which are automatically processed and submitted to the Amateur Observers Program.

An Australian high school is building its own Mars yard, News Corp reported. Hamilton Secondary College is converting one of its science labs into a simulated Martian landscape. Students will be able to build their own rovers and operate them from a mission control center. Over time other schools will be able to use the Mars yard over an Internet connection.

Exploring Deep Space

The citizen scientists at Supernova Hunters have identified 35 supernova candidates. Follow-up observations have confirmed that at least one of them is definitely an exploding star. Project lead Darryl Wright told the project’s volunteers. “AT 2016dln has been confirmed as a Type II supernova thanks to PESSTO, who obtained a spectrum with the New Technology Telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile…. This means that AT 2016dln will get a supernova name and become known as SN 2016dln.”

Headlines last week about an unusual binary star system glossed over the role amateur astronomers played in the research. AR Scorpii consists of a white dwarf and a red dwarf orbiting each other every three and a half hours. First observed in the 1970’s, astronomers thought it was a single variable star. Amateur astronomers in Germany, Belgium, and the UK noticed something unusual about the star last year and raised it to the attention of astronomers at the University of Warwick. A global observation campaign studied AR Scorpii across the electromagnetic spectrum. Not only did the pro-am collaboration determine that it is a binary star system, but that the white dwarf sends beams of electrons sweeping across the red giant. The intense energy accelerates electrons in the red dwarf’s atmosphere nearly to the speed of light. (DOI: 10.1038/nature18620) The discovery shows how amateur astronomers continue to play an important role in scientific research. There are so so many more amateur astronomers than professional astronomers - and so many things to observe in the night sky - that the amateurs can notice things the professionals would otherwise miss. [One of the amateurs involved in the study was Franz-Josef Hambsch who I interviewed last year.]

Another paper (arXiv: 1607.06804) studied the cataclysmic variable star system T CrB. The research depended on spectroscopic and photometric data collected by amateurs. Astronomical Ring for Access to Spectroscopy and the American Association of Variable Star Observers maintain archives of data collected by their members. Professional astronomers regularly rely on these archives as well as original observations from amateur astronomers.