Amateur Space Weekly - September 26

Indian students launch a CubeSat, US researchers crowdsource weather and earthquake data, and take a look at a stellar explosion. Headlines like these appear around the world every week as people take space exploration in their own hands. 

  • Featured News: Citizen science and light pollution, processing pics from Jupiter, educational rocketry and more.
  • Space Makers: University cubesats in the US and India, teens explore Near Space in America’s Pacific Northwest, British teens begin building model rocket cars
  • Amateurs in Space: Students in Kansas and British Columbia develop zero-gravity research.
  • Exploring Earth: Citizen science powers hurricane research, monitors rainfall in the US and Canada, measures earthquake intensity, and records cloud development.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Crowdsourcing the search for comets hiding in the asteroid belt, citizen scientists will help Nasa’s mission to Bennu, public reports of a meteor fireball over Quebec, and amateur image processors’ new take on Neptune.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Search for bubbles and shockwaves in Nasa images of the Milky Way, then take out some binoculars to view a stellar explosion.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: The economics forces hard choices on astronomy, learn how to use astronomy software, and the fading role of space art.

Featured News

Space Makers

United Launch Alliance announced the first universities to take part in its CubeCorp program. The company will reserve a CubeSat spot for university projects on every launch of its Atlas V rockets. Tory Bruno, ULA CEO and president, said in the press release “We’ve established a very low-cost approach to CubeSat design and launch to accommodate our commitment to STEM and innovative commercial CubeSat entrepreneurs.” Projects from the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Purdue University, and the University of Michigan earned berths on future rocket launches.

Students at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay watched their CubeSat ride into orbit, The Quint reports. The satelite will gather data on the ionosphere and communicate with amateur radio operators around the world. Students had complete responsibility for designing and building the Pratham project

Teens in Washington state are conducting Near Space research, the Bellevue Reporter reports. Students at the International School developed experiments that fit into 4 centimeter on a side containers. Cubes in Space places the containers on suborbital rockets and stratospheric balloons flown by Nasa.

Another STEM program will use hands-on rocket and balloon projects to inspire kids on the Colville Reservation, the Tribal Tribune reports. A Nasa grant to the University of Washington led to the creation of programs to support science and mathematics education among Native American schoolchildren in the Pacific Northwest. The program will use high-power rockets and weather balloons to fly student projects into the stratosphere.

The United Kingdom’s model rocket car race kicked off last week. The Bloodhound Project is a British attempt to beat the world land speed record. It conducts the nation’s largest STEM outreach projects - a competition to build model cars powered by model rocket motors. Nearly 4,000 schools took part in last year’s competition. The students’ rocket cars did not quite reach the 1,000 miles per hour that Bloodhound’s rocket car will reach, but did hit speeds up to 60 miles per hour.

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. The Leavenworth Times reported on the Kansas 8th graders picked to do science in space. Their study of slime mold development in microgravity will ride to the Space Station on the SSEP’s 10th mission. The TriCity News reported on a school district in Vancouver, Canada, whose students are developing zero-gravity research proposals. The winning team will be part of the SSEP’s 11th mission in mid-2017.

Air & Space Magazine featured the SSEP as part of its review of how the International Space Station serves as an education platform. From remote sensing to amateur radio conversations with astronauts in space to microgravity research, millions of kids have used the Space Station to take part in science. Follow-up surveys have found that these programs foster the kids’ interest in science but whether they have a long-term impact remains to be seen.

Exploring Earth

Citizen scientists at the Cyclone Center analyze space-based infrared images of hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones to catalog the storms' intensities. Credit: Cyclone Center

Researchers with America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published their first paper about the Cyclone Center citizen science project (open access DOI: 10.1175/MWR-D-16-0022.1). The paper introduces the meteorological community to the project’s methods and early results. Over the Cyclone Center project’s first three years 26,000 people contributed more than 480,000 classifications of 1,704 tropical storms shown in more than 92,000 satellite images. The citizen scientists analyze the intensity of these storms using a version of the same techniques used by professional meteorologists. When complete, Cyclone Center will give researchers a consistent analysis of more than four decades of satellite imagery. This will help produce more accurate forecasts and help determine the effect that climate change has on the development of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones.

Cocorahs is a network of volunteer weather monitors. They use a simple rain gauge to measure rainfall across the United States and Canada. Weather can happen on such a local scale that official weather stations a few miles away don’t register its impact. Recruiting volunteers provides a higher-resolution view of rainfall, snowfall, and flooding. The Times & Democrat reports that Cocorahs has 1,300 volunteers in South Carolina with about 400 contributing data daily. The Chronicle Herald reports that as Cocorahs expands across Nova Scotia, its volunteers are helping to understand the recent drought.

The United States Geological Survey relies on crowdsourcing to measure the intensity of earthquakes by collecting public reports at its Did You Feel It site. With reports arriving before official sensor data gets processed, public participation gives emergency responders quick snapshots of an earthquake’s effects. It also gives seismologists a better idea of the extent and intensity of earthquakes than can their widely separated seismic sensors.  A recent Wall Street Journal article explains how the USGS folds public reports into their work (subscription required).

Another way the public helps monitor earthquakes is by hosting inexpensive seismic sensors. The QuakeCatcher Network has developed USB seismic sensors that connect to a personal computer as well as apps that use a smartphone’s motion sensors to crowdsource seismic data. Tulsa World reported that the QuakeCatcher Network has expanded its coverage in Oklahoma

Komo News reports on Nasa’s new “cloud-sourcing” app. The space agency uses satellites to monitor cloud cover. But that technology has limits. The image sensors may not distinguish between clouds and snowfields or sand dunes. On top of that, the satellite can only see the top cloud layer. The Globe Observer app for iOS and Android lets submit pictures of clouds to Nasa where scientists will use the data to study cloud formation and validate the data they get from space. 

Exploring the Solar System

Scientists with the Comet Hunters crowdsourcing project added new images for citizen scientists to review. Not all of the objects in the Main Asteroid Belt are big chunks of rock. Some are a mix of rocks and ice covered by a thin layer of dust. When sunlight strikes an exposed surface, the ice sublimates to be carried away by the solar wind - the “asteroid” becomes a comet. The Comet Hunters project asks you search images of asteroids for the faint tails of gas streaming away from these Main Belt Comets.

CosmoQuest is working with Nasa team to create an asteroid-mapping citizen science project. Citizen scientists will map craters, boulders, and other features on the surface of the asteroid Bennu in images returned from Nasa’s Osiris-Rex mission. This will be the latest in a series of CosmoQuest planetary science projects. Asteroid Mappers, for example, lets anyone map features on the asteroid Vesta by marking up images from Nasa’s Dawn mission. This new project won’t launch for several years after Osiris-Rex enters orbit around Bennu. The catalog of hazards and objects on Bennu’s surface will help the Osiris-Rex team plan its sample collection.

Nearly 370 members of the public reported to the American Meteor Society when a fireball streaked across the skies of North America. The AMS uses these crowdsourced meteor reports to triangulate the object’s trajectory, from its source in the Solar System to the final sites of any meteorite impacts. This meteor appeared in the skies over the Canada-US border and vanished south of Montréal. Sébastien Giguère, science coordinator at the AstroLab science center, told the CBC that the original object was probably “the size of a big rock” but probably disintegrated before reaching the ground.

The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla wrote about the latest interpretation of Neptune by amateur image processors. They used the latest image and video editing techniques to create a fresh look at Voyager’s images of the eighth planet.

Exploring Deep Space

Clouds of gas and dust are the nurseries where the Milky Way Galaxy's new stars are born. Citizen scientists with the Milky Way Project can map the bubbles and shock waves that form when new stars burst to life. Credit: Milky Way Project

The MilkyWay Project relaunched with a new set of data. Astronomy professor Chip Kobulnicky explained how his University of Wyoming team hopes to use the citizen scientists’ work. “We are interested in bow shock nebulae and interstellar bubbles. No human could possibly search through this database, but tens of thousands of humans can.” Much of the data comes from Nasa’s Spitzer space telescope. The Spitzer outreach team spoke with the Milky Way Project’s lead researcher, Cal Poly Pomona astronomy professor Matthew Povich, who explained “We need an additional 2 million classifications to achieve our current science goals.” The project hopes to map bubbles, shockwaves, and other features created in gas clouds as new stars burst to life. 

A nova bright enough to be seen through binoculars has flared to life, Bob King reports in Universe Today. Unlike a supernova, a nova is not an exploding star. A white dwarf strips gas from a closely-orbiting companion star. That gas builds up until the growing pressure triggers nuclear fusion and blasts the collected gas away. King’s piece explains how to see the star in the night sky.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Air & Space Magazine reports on the latest impacts of astronomical economics. In order to break new paths in research, astronomers must build bigger - and more expensive - observatories. The next generation telescopes in development right now will cost billions of dollars to complete. Those costs are now squeezing the budgets for “moderately-sized” telescopes (more than two meters across - size is relative in astronomy). These are the modern workhorses used to make unglamorous but essential follow-up observations. 

Get a quick introduction to the astronomy app Stellarium at the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s website. Astronomy outreach expert Deidre Kelleghan produced the videos to help beginners use the software to find nebulae, comets and more.

Space art’s role in popularizing science has faded, Atlas Obscura reports. News magazines once supported a small but thriving market for space art. Now artists struggle for commissions in the face of an Internet awash with free images of space.