Amateur Space Weekly - August 8

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 science, observing Jupiter, and more.
  • Space Makers: Near Space record at Stanford, science teachers fly balloons over the UK, school CubeSats can hitch a ride with Nasa, teachers learn how to make rovers from Nasa, rocketeering, and amateur telescope making.
  • Amateurs in Space: Texas teens make supplies for the International Space Station 
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur astronomers help study Jupiter plus a globe of Mars that never was.
  • Exploring Deep Space: First-of-a-kind star system discovered through citizen science plus how crowdsourcing helps scientists study galaxies.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: A guide to astro-tourism in the US and UK, Near Space ballooning gets more support, and commercial space could save professional astronomy from the looming funding wall.

Featured News

Space Makers

As technology gets smaller and better, so do satellites. Nasa's CubeSat Launch Intiative helps advance the technology further. This CubeSat developed by students at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) tested technologies that Nasa wants to use in future space missions. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

Nasa announced the latest opportunities in the CubeSat Launch Initiative. The program lets educational and research CubeSats hitch a ride into space with the space agency’s own missions. CubeSats might ride to the International Space Station to be deployed by astronauts. Other CubeSats will ride along with a Nasa satellite to be ejected into orbit directly. Organizations in thirty-two states have participated in the CubeSat Launch Initiative. Nasa hopes to get applications from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the other eighteen states that have yet to develop a CubeSat.

Stanford University’s School of Engineering highlighted its undergraduates’ record-setting high altitude balloon flight. Back in June the students sent a Latex weather balloon on a 70-hour flight into the stratosphere. Latex balloons usually pop as the pressure difference between the enclosed helium and the thinning atmosphere grows. The students designed a system that adjusted the pressure within the balloon’s envelope and allowed the balloon to drift across the United States and Canada. Aria Tedjarati, the student project manager explained in the press release, “Our system presents a high-altitude platform for consumers who want to fly in the upper atmosphere and control systems at a relatively low price.”

The Raspberry Pi Foundation kicked off its Skycademy teacher training program. The three-day workshop shows teachers how to include stratospheric balloon projects in the curriculum. Over the next year the teachers will conduct their own Near Space missions in schools across the United Kingdom.

An educator learns how a "rover" build can enhance science classes. Credit: NASA Photo/Lauren Hughes

Nasa’s Armstrong Flight Research Center taught science educators how to build rovers. Thirty seven teachers from Southern California joined the Martian Advanced Resources for Survival workshop to learn how Nasa’s education materials can help them in the classroom. “I think the most impressive part of the seminar is showing how simple household or school materials can convey such large and encompassing concepts,” science teacher Michele Browning said in the press release. Teachers interested in these and similar educational guides can find them at Nasa’s Beginning Engineering Science and Technology site.

Dozens of amateur rocketeers gather outside Orlando, Florida, every month, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Rocketry of Orlando's Community Kids is a club for kids of all ages. Their monthly meetings can see more than one hundred launches. The Allied News wrote about a Pennsylvania library that hosts rocket-making workshops. Local students get hands-on experience building and launching rockets.

The 81st Convention of Telescope Makers was held over the weekend. The event included telescope-making workshops, demonstrations of amateur telescopes, and presentations by amateur and professional astronomers. The Eagle Times reported that up to one thousand people attended the convention:

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 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 at Cypress Ridge High School are redesigning the sleeping bag liners used by astronauts on the space station, Cy-Fair Lifestyles and Homes reports. Nasa is replacing their current Russian-designed sleeping bags with a more comfortable American design. Over the next two years the Texas students will deliver forty-eight liners to Nasa.

Exploring the Solar System

Nasa's Juno spacecraft has an orbit that takes it so far from Jupiter that the giant planet is only a few pixels across in its JunoCam instrument. Amateur astronomers can actually get much better - and many more - pictures all the way from Earth. That is one of the reasons planetary scientists rely on the world's amateur astronomers. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/SwRi/MSSS

Ars Technica reviewed the many ways amateur astronomers help study Jupiter. Amateur astronomers outnumber the planetary scientists and can provide 24x7 coverage of the giant planet whenever it is in the night sky. The article talks about the asteroid impacts discovered by amateurs as well as the JunoCam project. But it leaves out the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory. Created in 2003 by researchers in Spain, the PVOL provides a central archive for more than 15,000 amateur images of the outer planets. Planetary scientists can draw on this archive to conduct research they could never do on their own. An upgrade in progress will expand PVOL to hold amateur images of all planets.

You can buy a hand-crafted globe of a Mars that never was, Atlas Obscura reports. Astronomer Percival Lowell thought he saw signs of a dying civilization when he observed the red planet. His sketches showed “canals” that Lowell thought transported water to the arid deserts of Mars. Space enthusiast turned globe-maker Michael Plichta decided to turn these sketches into a globe which he now sells through his Mars Globes site.

Exploring Deep Space

Disk Detectives published its first paper thanks to thousands of citizen scientists. The crowdsourcing project relies on the public to identify dust clouds surrounding newly-formed stars. The resulting database will help scientists study the early stages of planetary formation. The new paper, however, is a little more focused. One of the planetary disks discovered by citizen scientists is part of a unique system. An A-type star twice as hot as the Sun not only has a debris disk, but also has two companion stars. One is a relatively close-orbiting red dwarf star that orbits the A star at a distance ten times that between the Sun and Pluto. Another companion, a white dwarf, is much further out. White dwarfs are the embers of a dead star. Somehow the A star’s debris disk survived the blast of material from its companion’s death throes. A very strange system that we only know about thanks to citizen science.

In other news from the Zooniverse, Galaxy Zoo explained how citizen scientists enables galactic research.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Astronomy tourism is an increasingly popular trend in the tourism industry. Finding A Million Star Hotel is one of the first tour guides to dark sky sites in the United States and the United Kingdom. It includes tips for making the most of your visit whether you are a stargazer or experienced amateur astronomer.

The Tuscon Airport Authority has backed WorldView’s plans to conduct Near Space balloon flights, the Arizona Daily Star reports. Southwest Airlines and American Airlines had opposed the plans, but the TAA decided the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight will keep the airspace safe.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Martin Elvis explains to astronomers how developments in the commercial space industry may help astronomy in the coming decades (arXiv: 1608.01004). As traditional observatories and space telescopes get more expensive, professional astronomy is about to hit a funding wall. As space industrializes, Elvis argues, the private sector will develop less expensive ways to conduct research in Outer Space.