Amateur Space Weekly - January 16

Brazilian kids’ satellite reaches orbit, amateur asteroid tracking, and a space opera for STEM. Every week I recap headlines like these from around the world the feature the growing number of people taking space exploration in their own hands.

  • Space Makers: US teen explains how model rocketry launched her towards engineering, and an amateur telescope maker’s steampunky scope.
  • Amateurs in Space: Brazilian elementary school’s satellite reaches orbit.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateur astronomer tracks asteroids, citizen scientists map spiders on Mars, public reports of Michigan meteor, and a Russian musician’s images of Jupiter.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Public search for glitches in gravitational wave data, and amateurs help discover a dozen gamma ray pulsars.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Stratospheric tourism in Spain, dark skies over Arizona, a 160 year old public observatory in Australia, a brand new public observatory in Abu Dhabi, fostering astronomy education in Africa, marketing citizen science, Scottish teacher wins astronomy award, and a space opera to engage kids in science.

Space Makers

The Team America Rocketry Challenge posted the latest testimonial from its teen rocketeers. Rebecca Zurek explains how model rocketry and competing in the TARC have launched her towards a career as an aerospace engineer. Every year thousands of kids across the United States and its territories design and build model rockets. Qualifying launches underway now will identify the top 100 teams who will compete at TARC’s national championship this summer. The US champion team will travel to Paris to compete with national champions from France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

An amateur astronomer went into the woodshop to solve a problem: how to comfortably view the stars without lugging around 70lbs of telescope. The result is a telescope that's a little sciencey, a little steampunky, and really cool.

Amateurs in Space

Several high schools and grade schools have sent satellites into orbit over the past two years, but technical glitches kept the sats from working. The latest attempt comes from Brazil where elementary school students built the Tancredo-1, a tube-shaped satellite that will study Earth’s atmosphere. Astronauts on the International Space Station released a carrier satellite today that will release the Tancredo-1 into orbit on Friday. The Brazilian government featured the Tancredo-1 project over the weekend (in Portuguese). Spaceflight 101’s report on all of the satellites released from the ISS today saves the Tancredo-1 for the end of the article.

Exploring the Solar System

People across the American Midwest reported a fireball in the skies over Michigan. Credit: American Meteor Society

One hundred and fifty people saw a large meteor streaking over the midwestern US, the Lansing State Journal reported. Those reports went to the American Meteor Society which collects fireball reports in the hope of tracking meteorite impact sites.

In the search for asteroids that could someday hit Earth, professional observatories take the lead. But discovery only tells you where the asteroid is now. Mapping the asteroid's orbit requires dozens - even hundreds - of follow-up observations. That is something professional observatories just can't do. Amateur astronomers around the world devote their time, effort, and equipment to collecting this data for the pros. The CosmoQuest blog shared an amateur astronomer’s description of an asteroid observing session. Far from typical, he and his buddies got to use the Vatican's 1.8-meter telescope in the mountains of Arizona, USA. A longish read and a little technical but it gives you a taste for what it takes to make sure we don't get hit by a dinosaur-killer.

Research published last month shows the formation of "spider" features on Mars for the first time. (Icarus paywall DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2016.09.007Planet Four: Terrains is a crowdsourced citizen science project that maps features on the south pole of Mars. These "spiders" form as carbon dioxide frost appears and disappears each winter, eroding the Martian landscape to create the spider-like features. The project's latest blog post includes an animation showing how Martian spiders develop.

As scientists planned Juno, Nasa’s mission to Jupiter, they realized the science did not require a camera. But this would be the first time in over a decade that a spacecraft would orbit the giant planet. How could they not take pictures? So they decided to pull some hardware off the shelf and create JunoCam for the people of Earth. The public gets to vote for the camera’s targets on each close approach. Then the data goes straight to the JunoCam website where anyone can download it and create their own interpretation of Jupiter. The Verge interviewed Russian musician Roman Tkachenko about how he became an amateur planetary processor.


Exploring Deep Space

Einstein@Home's global virtual supercomputer discovered 13 pulsars thanks to the support of volunteers around the worlds. Credit: Knispel/Clark/Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics/Nasa/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Twenty volunteers with the Einstein@Home citizen science projects were credited with discovering 13 new gamma-ray pulsars. Einstein@Home is a distributed computing project that taps into the unused processing capacity of its volunteers’ personal computers. The research (arXiv: 1611.01015) required the equivalent of 10,000 years of processing time to comb through radio astronomy data and make the discoveries.

Gravity Spy is a citizen science project that asks the public help the search for gravitational waves. Colliding black holes and other mega events send distortions in space-time rippling across the Universe. The LIGO observatory looks for these faint vibrations but anything from a passing truck to a phone call can mask the signal. University of Alabama Huntsville researcher Tyson Littenberg explains how the worst of these "glitches" are blips whose origins can't be explained. Fortunately volunteers around the world are scrubbing the blips from the data and making it easier for scientists to make the next gravitational wave discovery.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Zero2Infinity is a Spanish startup that plans to send scientists and tourists into the stratosphere in capsules suspended from giant balloons. Thirty kilometers above Earth's surface, and above 99.9% of the atmosphere, conditions are similar to the surface of Mars. Spaceoneers spoke with CEO Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales spoke about his company's plans to operate from the edge of space - and even launch rockets into orbit.

Flagstaff, Arizona is particularly sensitive to light pollution. Just east of the Grand Canyon, its dark skies are a popular attraction for astronomy tourists. The city is also home to the Lowell Observatory where the (dwarf) planet Pluto was discovered. The Arizona Daily Sun posted images that show how well Flagstaff has done to reduce light pollution. The results are the product of government and the people of Flagstaff making smarter lighting choices.

Melbourne’s public observatory is facing a different challenge. A home to professional and amateur astronomy for more than 160 years, the Melbourne Observatory already has to deal with deteriorating conditions as the city expands. The Age reports that the neighboring Royal Botanical Gardens wants to build a new facility next door. Heat and light will make the astronomers’ observations even more difficult. The question is which venue for public science takes priority?

The popular impression of amateur astronomers is that they stand alone outside in the dark. But astronomy has a social component to it as well. Many amateurs try to share their love of the night sky with their communities. They also hope to get kids interested in science and math by giving them their first view of Saturn's rings and the Andromeda Galaxy. The United Arab Emirates' major newspaper, The National, ran this report about an Emirati who built a public astronomical observatory after the death of his younger brother. He hopes that he can live up to his brother's vision to inspire fellow Emirates and their kids to love the stars.

Five years ago the International Astronomical Union opened an office in South Africa to foster astronomy as a tool for economic development. The IAU development program's first annual report looks back at the previous five years and summarizes the programs that helped spread astronomy across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Many of the programs focus on giving kids and college students access to telescopes to encourage their studies of science, math, and coding. Even if the students don't become astronomers, the skills they learn will enhance the local economy.

Kenyan astrophysicist Willice Obonyo describes his path from a childhood in rural Kenya to a career in radio astronomy. Writing in The Conversation, Obonyo tells how he became a science teacher before earning a master’s degree with help from the Square Kilometer Array. The SKA will become the most powerful telescope in the world and make Africa a center for radio astronomy, but the continent needs more people like Obonyo to pursue astronomy careers.

A new research paper shows how a citizen science project conducted a marketing campaign. As more researchers conduct more crowdsourcing projects, they are facing more competition for citizen scientists' attentions. Project organizers increasingly must master marketing techniques from the business world to increase engagement, conversion, and retention.

Science teacher Tim Browett will receive the Royal Astronomical Society’s Patrick Moore Medal. Browett is an advocate for astronomy education in Scotland. He organizes community events, supports astronomy clubs, and is a go-to expert when news organizations need an explanation for astronomical events. Browett “was instrumental” in expanding the UK’s National Space Academy into Scotland and conducts one of the only GCSE astronomy courses in the region. You can read all about his outreach work in the RAS's announcement (PDF).

An education project will create an opera about lunar exploration to enhance European students' appreciation of science and math. The Global Science Opera's production of "Moon Village" will be a collaborative effort. Students, teachers, scientists, and artists around the world will develop the opera and the educational programs around it. The GSO's previous productions include "Skylight" was an official project of the International Year of Light in 2015. Last year's production of "Ghost Particles" celebrated the history of particle physics culminating in the Large Hadron Collider's confirmation of the Higgs Boson. Schools perform the opera and conduct workshops and classroom activities that dive into the history and science of each season. The GSO is looking for volunteers of all ages and backgrounds to help prepare "Moon Village" for its debut in November.