Amateur Space Weekly - August 22

Help program Nasa's Watneybot, teens sending science into space, and a RaspberryPi seismic sensor crowdfunds $100,000. Every week I recap headlines from around the world about the growing number of people who take space exploration in their own hands.

  • Featured News: Crowdfunding science, observing Jupiter, tracking asteroids, and more.
  • Space Makers: Suborbital science, a DIY drone boat sails the Pacific, and Nasa robot contests.
  • Amateurs in Space: How a high school became a Nasa contractor, plus student experiments head to the space station.
  • Exploring Earth: Climate on TV, picturing weather, and a crowdfunded seismic sensor.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Study never seen before pictures of Mars... for science.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur astronomer describes his work with the pros, Supernova Hunters discover more exploding stars, and ninth graders use a 40-foot radio telescope.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Nasa's research archive opens to the public, a bubble in space investments, plus light pollution in New York and New Zealand.

Featured News

Space Makers

Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility hosts several educational suborbital research programs. Last week a Terrier-improved Malemute suborbital rocket carried university and community college experiments 95 miles into the Virginia skies. An anomaly prevented Nasa from recovering the payloads, but it did receive data from most of the experiments during the rocket’s flight. 

The Financial Times wrote about Denmark’s volunteer rocketeers. The article provides a good example of the maker ethos that powers Copenhagen Suborbitals. This summer was supposed to see the launch of several Nexø missions. The Nexø 1 rocket would test the thrust vectoring control system and the parachute descent system. Unfortunately a stuck valve slammed the rocket into the Baltic Sea on the Nexø 1’s first launch. Experts quoted in the FT article question whether a volunteer, crowdfunded effort can sustain the project in the long term. Leaders of the eight year old organization disagreed.

A California tinker wrote about his solar-powered drone boat in Make Magazine. Damon McMillan built the sixty pound boat with parts from remote controlled airplanes and local hardware stores. It used GPS and an Arduino processor to navigate from California to Hawaii. Now it is on its way to New Zealand.

A Massachusetts teen’s rocket guidance system earned him a spot in the Google Science Fair, the Vineyard Gazette reports. Charlie Fenske adapted a technology developed for aircraft, synthetic jet actuators, to redesign the control fins on suborbital rockets to enable more efficient suborbital research. He explains his motivations and work in the Vineyard Gazette interview. His Google Science Fair project page provides technical background on his research.

Britain’s organization of amateur satellite makers, Amsat UK, held its annual conference earlier this month. Videos from the 2016 International Space Colloquium are now available.

Robots will play an import role on human missions into deep space. The Mars Society's University Rover Challenge promotes designs of robots that could assist astronauts on Mars. For the past ten years university students have traveled from all over the world to America’s southwestern deserts to compete. Polish universities began hosting the European Rover Challenge two years ago. Now the UK Mars Society has launched its own competition. Teams from the UK, Canada, India, Egypt and Poland navigated their rovers through an obstacle course to conduct simulated Mars missions… in Manchester.

Even Nasa expects astronauts to rely on robots - and they want the public’s help. The latest Centennial Challenge asks coders to teach their Robonaut 5 how to repair a Mars habitat. Centennial Challenge program manager Monsi Roman said in the press release that “precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks, which will be crucial to support our astronauts.” Fortunately Nasa's Watneybot does not need potatoes.

Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center launched the 2017 Robotic Mining Competition. Universities must design a robot that can excavate simulated Martian regolith and return it to a collector bin. Particles of dust and sand here on Earth get eroded by water and friction but on other worlds the particles remain sharp-edged and quickly abrade machinery. Nasa hopes the competition will produce new and innovative approaches to living off the land.

Amateurs in Space

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to foster America's modern manufacturing industry by bringing shop classes back to secondary schools. But this isn't your grandfather's shop class. Students use modern manufacturing tools to build spare parts for the International Space Station. This Decatur Courier-Journal report showcases the Georgia school that has worked with Nasa for thirteen years.

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. Here are some reports about these student space scientists:

Exploring Earth

Yale Climate Connections explains why Americans will hear more about climate change during their TV weather updates.

Britain’s Royal Photographic Society announced the finalists in this year’s Weather Photographer of the Year contest. Amateur Photographer Magazine posted a gallery of the images and reported that more than eight hundred images had been submitted. The public can vote for their favorite images on the contest website. The winning images will be announced at the Amateur Meteorologists’ Conference in September.

Raspberry Shake crowdfunded nearly $100,000. The RaspberryPi-based seismograph will let you detect magnitude 2 earthquakes within a 50-mile radius and magnitude 4 earthquakes within a 300-mile radius. More importantly you can share the “observatory quality” data with the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre to create a richer scientific dataset.

Exploring the Solar System

You can study images of Mars no human has seen before. The pictures were taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera and show regions of the Martian south pole. Planet Four: Terrains displays the images so citizen scientists can help scientists study seasonal variations on the Martian surface.

Exploring Deep Space

An artist's rendering of AR Scorpii. Amateur astronomers noticed the binary star system's unusual behavior caused when the white dwarf bathes its red dwarf companion with a beam of electrons. Credit: Warwick University

Amateur astronomer Josch Hambsch described his most recent collaboration with professional astronomers in Sky & Telescope Magazine. A group of German amateur astronomers spotted an unusual pattern in the pulsing light from the star AR Scorpii. They contacted Josch who collected better data with his robotic telescope in Chile. The combined observations led professional astronomers to discover that AR Scorpii consists of a white dwarf and a red dwarf orbiting each other every three and a half hours (Paywalled at Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature18260). This is not the first collaboration for the Belgium-based amateur. I interviewed Josch Hambsch about his variable star research last year.

In the latest email update from the Supernova Hunters project, principal investigator Darryl Wright reported that citizen scientists’ latest discoveries brings the number of supernova candidates to 166. Two of these candidates have been spectroscopically confirmed to be supernovae.

Twenty rising ninth graders conducted radio astronomy research at the Green Bank Observatory, the Suffolk News Herald reported. The summer camp included instruction in astronomy, circuit design, and coding (along with swimming and hiking). At the end of the two-week program the students took control of the observatory’s 40-foot telescope to collect radio data for their own research projects. Physicists Inspiring the Next Generation fosters under-represented minorities in the sciences and is a collaboration between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the National Society of Black Physicists, and Associated Univerities, Inc.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

All research paid for by Nasa must be published openly in the space agency’s research archive. Proprietary research and any research subject to national security regulations aren’t included, but the public will still get access to hundreds of research papers every year. “Making our research data easier to access will greatly magnify the impact of our research,” NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan said in the press release. “As scientists and engineers, we work by building upon a foundation laid by others.” Here is a sampling of research related to human space exploration:

The venture capital industry is pouring investment dollars into a new space industry. CubeSat and other small satellite technologies enable a new generation of space startups, GeekWire reports. These companies all face the same challenge - getting into space is expensive and inconvenient. The Space Review looked at the many rocket startups hoping to serve this new market. I’ve written before about the “Million Satellite Market” but starry-eyed space cadets have led investors to ruin before.

New York City’s stargazers can watch the night sky despite the city lights, Chelsea Now reported. 

New Zealand students help conduct dark sky research, the Otago Daily Times reported. Eight students measured light pollution levels around the city of Dunedin for their science fair project. The quality of their work earned praise from local astronomers and advocates for lighting regulations.