Amateur Space Weekly - August 30

You could 3D print tools in space, help spot severe storms, or discover exploding stars. 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: Tracking asteroids, improving citizen science, crowdsourcing aurora reports, and more.
  • Space Makers: Enhancing student robotics in space, makers move into the lab, ham radio via satellite, a DIY flight computer for Near Space balloons, the World Space Modeling championships, CubeSat propulsion, 
  • Amateurs in Space: Grant Imahara wants you to 3D print in space, undergrads design tools for asteroid missions, high schools making hardware for Nasa, and UAE teens doing DNA research in space. 
  • Exploring Earth: Skywarn volunteers help make Indiana and Colorado storm warnings better, British citizen science project observes eclipse-driven weather, touring the Northwest Passage, and training your machine learning algorithm.
  • Exploring the Solar System: The dust on your car could be micrometeorites, asteroid occultations over Mexico and the United States.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen scientists discover exploding starts and probably (not) alien civilizations.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Near space tourism may get delayed, astrophotography tips, and CosmoQuest to award citizen science grants.

Featured News

Space Makers

MIT originally developed to the Spheres robots to test formation maneuvering for satellite repair missions. Annual contests give middle and high school students a chance to control the Spheres robots in the International Space Station. When the next generation Astrobee robots arrive next year, students will be able to do even more. Credit: Nasa

Zero Robotics held the final round of its US middle school competition last week. Students developed code that controlled Nasa’s Spheres robots on the International Space Station. Texas A&M University’s College of Engineering helped Texas kids take part in this zero-gravity coding contest. A paper posted to Nasa’s Technical Report Server describes how future Zero Robotics will evolve. The students will program the new Astrobee robots to collect environmental data from within the Space Station.

An article in Scientific American looks at how the maker movement has moved into the research lab. I question how “new” this is - scientists have always had to improvise within their limited budgets - but it does show how consumerized technology lowers the cost of building research technology.

New videos introduce amateur satellites for ham radio operators, Southgate Amateur Radio News reports.

An entry for the Hackaday Prize turns an Arduino processor into a flight data recorder for stratospheric balloon flights. You can get full instructions for building the custom-designed recorder on the FlightCPU Hackaday project page. It also includes a 25-page write up on how to plan and execute a Near Space balloon flight.

The thirtieth annual International Rocket Week took place in Paisley, Scotland, last weekend. The BBC posted a photo gallery from the event.

Ukraine hosted the World Space Modeling championships. Competitors spent the weekend launching home made model rockets. Bulgaria, Ukraine and Latvia medalled in team competition. Latvia, Ukraine and China took the top three individual medals. Czech rocketeer Jan Sebesta won the scale model competition with his highly accurate reproduction of the Saturn V. The British team explained that despite their use of 3D printing and other advanced techniques, aviation regulations in the UK put them at a competitive disadvantage to their Eastern European counterparts.

Nasa posted a survey of CubeSat propulsion technology to its Technical Report Server. CubeSats do not traditionally have propulsion systems due to safety regulations, cost, and limited volume. As more scientists build their missions around more affordable CubeSat platform, however, they need the capabilities that propulsion delivers. One of the technologies in this paper is the University of Michigan’s CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT). The Cat project’s $96,000 crowdfunding round was one of the more successful kickstarter space projects. [Disclaimer: I got a bow tie for my contribution.] [Bow ties are cool.]

Amateurs in Space

Mouser Electronics and Grant Imahara have launched the ISS Challenge, a competition to 3D print tools for astronauts. Imahara and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield appeared in this video to explain what competitors must consider when designing for zero-gravity conditions.

Nasa is taking applications for its Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g Next) competition. Teams of undergraduate and graduate students must design a tool that astronauts can use while visiting an asteroid. Engineers at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center will test the top designs in the giant swimming pool where astronauts train for zero-g.

Nasa released this video about the High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) program. It is part of Nasa's efforts to foster America's modern manufacturing industry by bringing shop classes back to secondary schools. Students learn how to use modern manufacturing tools from computer aided design to 3D printing. Along the way they build spare parts for the International Space Station.

Students in the United Arab Emirates are competing to send science into orbit, The National reports. They are participating in the Genes in Space competition. The winner will use the International Space Station’s miniPCR DNA lab to conduct an original research project.

Exploring Earth

The National Weather Service’s Skywarn program enlists 400,000 volunteers to monitor severe storms. The distance between the agency’s weather radar stations can miss the highly localized effects of storms. Ground truth from these volunteers lets meteorologists make better forecasts and issue more reliable warnings. KJCT spoke with Colorado’s volunteers. Emergency Management Magazine interviewed Skywarn volunteers in Indiana.

Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson wrote about a British citizen science project that studied the impact of solar eclipses. A partial solar eclipse over the United Kingdom in early 2015 let British weather spotters contribute to the National Eclipse Weather Experiment. The resulting research has been published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. One paper described the project itself (DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2015.0223) More than 3500 students and teachers from 127 schools took part in the project and contributed more than 15,000 observations. Another paper describing the resulting science (DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2015.0220) found that citizen science detected the reduction of wind speed during the eclipse, but the data was too fuzzy to do any detailed analysis. It advises developing better advice for citizen scientists on ways to measure cloudiness and windspeed.

Climate change opens a new destination for tourists, Quartz reports. Warming sea temperatures in the Arctic has left the Northwest Passage ice free this summer. The largest cruise ship to attempt the passage departed from Alaska last week to give well-heeled passengers a new view of the tundra.

Digital Globe and its partners created an open archive of satellite images for developers of machine learning algorithms. The SpaceNet database will provide them with training sets that the algorithms can crunch to get more efficient.

Exploring the Solar System

You could mine asteroids without leaving Earth (but you have to work really hard at it), Eos reports. Norwegian scientist Jon Larsen collected dust in urban environments around the world. His goal was to find micrometeorites amongst the Earthly grit and debris. After six years of effort he found 500 micrometeorites in 300 kilograms of dust. That kind of effort - plus the followup analysis - may be beyond amateurs’ reach. But when amateurs discover caves on Mars and exoplanets orbiting other stars who can say what they can do with a handful of dust?

Universe Today’s David Dickinson wrote about two asteroid occultations over North America. Unless an asteroid gets really close to Earth, even the biggest telescopes only see it as a point of light. Measuring the shadow cast by an asteroid as it passes in front of a star lets planetary scientists determine the asteroid’s size and shape (and even whether it has moons or rings). Professional astronomers often ask amateurs to participate in occultation observation campaigns since more observations produce higher resolution data. Dickinson’s piece focused on two occultations passing over Mexico and the United States over the weekend.

Exploring Deep Space

Wired reported on a crowdfunded astronomy research program that (probably) won’t find aliens. Citizen scientists with the Planet Hunters project noticed a strange pattern in data from the Kepler Space Telescope. Scientists could not explain it after conducting follow-up observations. But then somebody mentioned aliens and the crowd went nuts. The scientists launched a kickstarter project that raised more than $100,000 to give them more telescope time.

The Supernova Hunters project crowdsources discoveries of exploding stars. The latest email update from lead scientist Darryl Wright announced a further 26 supernova candidates had been added to the list.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

World View’s path to the stratosphere hit a speed bump last week, the Tucson Sentinel reported. Pima County had agreed to finance the construction of the near space company’s headquarters and manufacturing facility. World View hopes to conduct scientific and tourist balloon flights from the Tucson Airport. A libertarian group, claiming the subsidy violated Arizona law, filed suit to block the deal. Last week a state judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Also interesting: the World View website de-emphasizes the tourism business in favor of research flights.

Hong Kong’s amateur astronomers advised the South China Morning Post on ways to capture images of the night sky despite light pollution.

With voting for the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year under way, the Royal Museums Greenwich posted a video with astrophotography tips from the competition’s judges.

CosmoQuest opened applications for its first round of grants under their Nasa education contract. The funding will let scientists build projects on CosmoQuest’s crowdsourced citizen science service. Just as important, the funding also covers operations, partial salary for graduate students, and expenses for publishing research.