Amateur Space Weekly - September 13

The launch of amateur satellites delayed by SpaceX launchpad “mishap”, Nasa awards West Virginia students $750,000, Swiss meteorite hunters discover trove of space rocks, and more. 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: Playing with the latest images from Jupiter, the 2016-17 rocketry season begins, and more.
  • Space Makers: Yet another CubeSat launcher, Girl Scout wins telescope-making award, Ardusat expands teacher tools, Nasa's educational satellite program, explosion delays amateur satellites, Nasa awards WV undergrads $750K, MBA's in space, and schools in Near Space.
  • Amateurs in Space: US/Canadian teens to send zero-g research to space, and Montana maker program does the same.
  • Exploring Earth: Nasa crowdsources cloud data, using satellites to track deforestation, four years of hurricane citizen science, volunteer weather spotters, surfers support ocean science, and an earth observation mooc.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Award-winning meteor-spotting app in Australia, Swiss meteorite hunters collect a motherload for science, and volunteers to conduct solar eclipse science.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen science supports galactic research and spots supernovae, a telescope network to expand education programs, and a new course on variable star observing.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: A visionary rancher preserves southern Colorado's dark skies.

Featured News

Space Makers

Students from West Virginia University were the first to win Phase 2 of Nasa's Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nasa/Joel Kowsky

Students from West Virginia University won $750,000 in Nasa’s Sample Return Robot Challenge. Nasa has a multi-stage plan to bring samples of Martian geology back to Earth. The Mars 2020 rover will collect rocks and dust into sample containers which it will cache as it drives across the Martian landscape. A future mission will collect those samples and place them into a small rocket. A third mission will rendezvous with the samples in orbit and bring them back to Earth. The competition, part of Nasa’s Centennial Challenges program, sought innovative approaches to autonomous rover operations from groups outside the traditional space contractors. Open to private citizens as well as universities, the teams had to design rovers that could navigate an obstacle course and retrieve samples within a specified time. The WVU Mountaineers were the first team in the contest’s four year history to complete all of the objectives. Other coverage of the contest included Wyoming News report about two brothers who teamed up to build a Mars rover.

CubeSat technology is revolutionizing the space industry. As long as CubeSat makers must hitch rides on other people’s rocket launches, however, the technology’s full potential will remain unfulfilled. The potential market for CubeSat launches has spurred a wave of Powerpoint launch companies - startups who promise to make rockets but haven’t. CubeCab plans to adopt an air-launch model similar to the Virgin Galactic LauncherOne and Vulcan Aerospace Stratolaunch systems. The BBC reports that CubeCab will use an F-104 Starfighter, an early Cold War-era fighter, to carry a rocket to edge of the stratosphere. (Most of the BBC piece is an interesting history of the F-104)

Girl Scout Corinne Wilklow reflects on being only woman to win a telescope-making award at this year’s Stellafane Convention. In her letter to the Ridgefield Press she explains how scouting gave her the confidence to compete head-to-head with the adult (mostly male) telescope makers. The Stellafane Convention is an annual get-together for amateur telescope makers. It began in 1926 when the only way to get a telescope was to build one yourself. Today it is one of the largest astronomy festivals in the United States with vendor displays, telescope-making classes, and competitions in mechanical and optical design.

The 2016-2017 educational rocketry season kicked off as registration opened for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Teens across the United States and the US Territories can compete for prizes and scholarships by building and launching rockets. [Check out the featured article American students get ready for Team America Rocketry Challenge.] 

The Higher Education Journal reports that Ardusat has expanded its platform to support STEM education and teacher professional development. Ardusat began as an outreach program that let students program a satellite to collect data from space. Later they created kits based on their satellite hardware that let students build environmental sensor devices. Now the Ardusat Experiment Hub provides teachers a full set of standards-based curriculum materials.

Nasa’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (Elana) program gives free rides to orbit for satellites built be universities and secondary schools. A presentation describing the Elana program’s future has been posted to Nasa's Technical Report Server.

The fire that destroyed SpaceX’s Falcon 9 on the launch pad will affect more than just commercial satellites. ARRL reports that the Amsat Fox-1Cliff and Fox-1D will not launch this Fall. Amsat is the original organization for American amateur satellite makers. The Fox platform is Amsat’s next-generation platform for amateur radio-based satellites. In addition to providing services for ham radio operators, the satellites host university research projects. Vanderbilt University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Iowa have student-designed experiments in the Fox-1Cliff and Fox-1D satellites.

Students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business sent a Near Space balloon 115,000 feet into the stratosphere.

Wyoming TV station KCWY reported on an elementary school that will use Near Space balloons to study next year’s solar eclipse. 

Sir Wilfrid Laurier School will be the first high school to take part in Canada’s stratospheric balloon research missions. "In addition to benefitting from getting real data from their experiments,” teacher Jamie Parkinson said in the press release, “students will gain valuable engineering, manufacturing, project management and logistics skills. They will also gain experience in managing teams and develop human resource skills that will help them in their future careers." The Canadian Space Agency’s Stratos Program conducts high-altitude research and technology development by sending payloads into the unique environment of Near Space. The students will conduct environmental monitoring as well as send science fair projects into the stratosphere.

Amateurs in Space

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. Last week the SSEP kicked off its 11th mission into orbit. More than 13,000 students in 21 communities across the US and Canada will propose zero-gravity projects. Each community will see one of those student projects ride into space next spring.

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. 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. The Laurel Outlook wrote about a Montana high school maker program that sent an experiment to the International Space Station.

Exploring Earth

Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center launched a new citizen science program. The space agency has a fleet of satellites monitoring cloud coverage. The data helps meteorologists improve their forecasts, supports atmospheric research, and provides insight into the effects of climate change. But the technology has limits. It does not “know” that it is looking at clouds. It could be snow or salt flats or painted surfaces. It also cannot distinguish between different kinds of clouds. The Globe Clouds project “allows you to photograph clouds and record sky observations and compare them with NASA satellite images.” The publicly crowdsourced ground truth lets scientists validate the data they get from space.

Newsweek wrote about the way satellite imaging is revolutionizing not only business but also environmental advocacy. The view of Earth from space, once limited to spy agencies, gives environmentalists information they could never collect on their own. The article cites Amazon Conservation Association for its work tracking deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.

America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched the Cyclone Center crowdsourcing project four years ago. The project’s scientists explained how citizen scientists’ contributions make a difference to science of hurricanes. The historical record of cyclone intensity is not consistent. Each nation uses different techniques to evaluate the storms in satellite images. Individual analysts can look at the same picture and, using the same techniques, reach different conclusions. Cyclone Center uses the power of crowdsourcing to produce a consistent database of the 40 year archive of cyclones.

Vermont Public Radio reports that Cocorahs wants more volunteer rain spotters in the green mountain state. One hundred Vermonters send daily observations of rain and snowfall to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (which somehow gets acronymed Cocorahs). The network gets around nine thousand reports from volunteers across the United States and Canada every day. The crowdsourced data lets meteorologists refine their weather forecasts, helps map risks of floods and droughts, and provides insight into long-term trends in local climate. Professional meteorologists can get higher quality data from state of the art sensors, but could never afford the dense coverage Cocorahs achieves.

The Cooperative Observers Program (Coop) is a more formal network run by America’s National Weather Service. Established by Congress in 1890, Coop now receives reports of temperature, rainfall, and other weather data from nearly 9,000 volunteers. Net Nebraska wrote about local Cooperative Weather Observer Gerry Osborne’s seven decades of service.

A new citizen science program turns surfing into Earth science research. Surfers can replace their surfboard’s fin with a sensor-laden Smartfin. It records salinity, acidity, temperature, and wave characteristics and uploads the data. Surfrider Foundation CEO Chad Nelsen explained in the press release that the Smartfin “is an effort to connect surfers and their communities to larger issues affecting ocean health.” The data will be available to ocean researchers around the world. More information is on the Surfrider Foundation’s Smartfin site.

The National Weather Service activated its Skywarn network as hurricanes headed for Hawai’i, the Amateur Radio Relay League reported last week. Skywarn is the weather agency’s network of volunteer storm spotters. Extreme weather occurs on such a localized scale that meteorologists’ far-flung weather stations cannot tell what’s happening. The volunteers use ham radio or smartphones to report hail, downpours, funnel clouds and other extreme events. That gives meteorologists the ground truth they need to make accurate storm warnings. 

The Owatonna People’s Press reported from a roundtable discussion about disaster preparedness. Local Skywarn coordinator Dave Purscell talked about how 65 Skywarn volunteers monitored tornados in his southern Minnesota county.

The European Space Agency is offering an online course on Optical Earth Observation. The five week program introduces the public to the use of satellite imagery in science and industry

Exploring the Solar System

Fireballs in the Sky won a Eureka award for innovation in citizen science. The project uses a smartphone app to crowdsource reports of meteor fireballs. Scientists use the data to triangulate the object’s trajectory and identify the location of potential meteorite falls. More than 23,000 people have downloaded the app. The Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes “reward outstanding achievements in Australian science and science communication”.

Volunteer meteorite hunters helped study an ancient meteor impact in Switzerland, FranceInfo reports. Three decades ago a farmer discovered a 15 kilogram meteorite while plowing a barley field. The impact occurred 150,000 years ago when a meteoroid up to 20 meters across and weighing up to 30,000 tons entered Earth’s atmosphere. The iron-rich rock is part of the IIG group of hexahedrite meteorites. Only half a dozen IIG meteorites had been discovered before (says Wikipedia). With the volunteers’ help, the Natural History Museum of Bern now has nearly 600 fragments.

The Citizen Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse (Citizen Cate) project plans to study the total solar eclipse as it passes over the United States next year. A network of volunteers will host telescopes and sensors at 60 sites across the country. Their combined work will help document the Sun’s inner corona over a 90-minute period. A new preprint posted to arXiv explains how the project team tested the equipment in Indonesia and the Faroe Islands (arXiv: 1609.00035).

Exploring Deep Space

The GalaxyZoo team has published new research on star formation rates in galaxies with active galactive nuclei (open access MNRAS DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stw2204, arXiv: 1609.0023). An AGN releases enormous amounts of energy as a galaxy’s central black hole consumes surrounding matter. A Galaxy Zoo blog post explains how the research shows statistically for a large population that AGNs occur at the same time as depressed star formation rates.

The Supernova Hunters citizen science project lets the public search for supernovae in images from a volcano-top telescope in Hawai’i. In an email to participants, project scientist Darryl Wright reported that the volunteers had classified over 9000 subjects and discovered 10 supernova candidates.

The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network (LCOGT) is a privately-operated network of telescopes that conducts astronomy research and rents out its telescopes to scientists around the world. The Santa Barbara Independent spoke with LCOGT’s education director Edward Gomez. He hopes to expand school participation in order to “make everyone realize they are a scientist.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers launched introductory courses on variable star observing.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The southern Colorado small towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff form one of the ten IDA Dark Sky Communities in the United States. The surrounding mountains block most of the light pollution from Colorado’s population centers. More importantly, the community has committed to limiting light pollution. The Colorado Independent wrote about the Colorado rancher who began a movement to protect her community's night skies. Local citizens raised more than $10,000 to change all of the street lights and educate residents on the need for dark night skies. The group built the Suzanne Jack Observatory, posthumously named after its founder, to house a community telescope