Amateur Space Weekly - January 23

40,000 rocketeers in Cornwall, coding space robots, and amateurs help study Jupiter. 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: Cornwall’s student rocket car makers, US teen rocketeer on her passion for rocketry
  • Amateurs in Space: Coding contest in space, teens’ zero-g science, Philippines’ amateur radio satellite
  • Exploring the Solar System: Planning for America’s solar eclipse, amateurs help study the planets, 
  • Exploring Deep Space: Science teachers studying black holes, citizen scientists helping astrophysicists, and amateur astronomers contributing to new research
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Astronomy outreach in the UAE, Australian kids visiting Nasa, and European teachers studying Mars

Space Makers

The Cornish Times reports on the thirty volunteers who will help forty thousand Cornish kids race rocket cars. They are taking part in an education program run by Bloodhound SSC, the British attempt to set a land-speed record. A car powered by a jet fighter engine and rocket will speed more than 1000 miles per hour across the deserts of South Africa. Using safe model rocket motors, the student-built cars won’t hit those amazing speeds but will get kids thinking about becoming engineers.

Teenaged rocketeer Ava Badii won the grand prize in the Team America Rocketry Challenge's essay contest. Even though her all-girl high school has only 350 students, it still fields a 9-person rocketry club that made it to the TARC finals in 2016. Badii describes the opportunities TARC opened for her and how the "passion for rocketry" ignited by competitive rocket contest has launched her towards a career in aerospace engineering.

Amateurs in Space

Zero Robotics is an annual programming contest for teens in the United States, Australia, and the European Space Agency's member nations. Schools form teams that write code to control Nasa's Spheres robots. A series of qualifying rounds leads to the championship round when finalists see their code uploaded to the International Space Station and watch the robots do their thing. CBS19 reported on the Virginia high school that has reached the finals for the fifth year in a row. They have teamed up with schools in Britain and Australia to write the final code. The championship is coming up on January 27.

Every year tens of thousands of students in the United States and Canada take part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. More than sixty-one thousand students have participated in the SSEP in its six year history by sending research to the International Space Station. The program’s tenth mission into orbit launches next month on top of a Space X rocket. Tennessee's Knox News reports on one team of students who will study the effect of zero-g on the bacteria that causes pink eye. When the eleventh mission launches this summer, New York’s WHAM reports, it will include a cyanobacteria experiment designed by Rochester-area teens.

Amateurs have been making satellites since the dawn of the Space Age. Most of these focus on supporting satellite-based amateur radio, allowing ham radio operators around the world to communicate with each other... through space. But not all amateur radio satellites are amateur-built. The Sun Star wrote this article about the amateur radio capability of Diwata-2, the Philippines' second microsatellite. Its main mission is to provide remote sensing data and support emergency responders. Part of its payload, though, is an amateur radio transceiver. The satellite will give more than a thousand ham radio enthusiasts scattered across the archipelago another way to connect.

Exploring the Solar System

Citizen scientists' help with Planet Four: Ridges could lead to more images like this taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRise camera. Credit: Nasa / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Planetary scientists with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute need help exploring Mars - and they are turning to the public to get the job done. Planet Four: Ridges displays images from Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for the public to analyze. As they mark the ridges they see in the images, the project will build a map of these features. Scientists will use the map to plan future MRO observations... and maybe someday astronauts. A post on the project’s blog explains how to recognize sand dunes on Mars.

Millions of people will look up in the skies above America to watch this year's total solar eclipse. Communities that lie beneath the eclipse’s path expect the event to boost their economies.  The Clay County Progress described how a North Carolina community has created an eclipse task force. Community leaders expect up to 30,000 people to show up for the eight minute event. The Clay County Eclipse Task Force will ensure that everyone stays safe - and spends money at local businesses. Science writer Elizabeth Howell explained on Seeker how many of the eclipse tourists will do a bit of science at the same time.

Brain Bank Manc's latest blog post explains how amateur astrophotographers images of the planets rival anything the pros created a few decades ago. The secret: a webcam and a small telescope are all you need to make your own lunar or solar images. (You could even do it with a camera and telephoto lens) Of course Nasa takes things to another level by flying its Sofia observatory as high as 60,000 feet on a Boeing 747. An outreach program lets science teachers join each flight. They sit side-by-side with the professional astronomers collecting data from across the Universe. The San Bernardino Sun wrote about two local teachers - one middle school, the other elementary school - who flew with Nasa last week.

Each time Nasa's Juno spacecraft's orbit carries it close to Jupiter, its on-board camera captures detailed images of the planet's storm-wracked surface. What makes this mission different is that scientists don't choose the JunoCam's targets - the public does. UPI looked at how the JunoCam project engages people around the world in the exploration of Jupiter.

A new preprint (arXiv: 1701.03484) describes a study of Jupiter’s clouds that relied on amateur images of the giant planet. Getting time on the big professional observatories is extremely competitive - many telescopes are oversubscribed many times over. Amateurs, on the other hand, can make observations whenever they want. And the high-quality images they produce can provide a lot of scientific value. The authors of this paper observed Jupiter with the Very Large Array (the one Jodi Foster works at in the movie Contact). Images captured by amateur astronomers in Australia, France, and Germany helped place their observations in context. Many of the amateur planetary images used by the professionals are stored in an online archive, the Planetary Virtual Observatory & Laboratory. Another preprint (arXiv: 1701.01977) describes the database’s latest updates and expanded coverage of all planets in the Solar System.

Japan’s space agency JAXA has discovered gravity waves in the atmosphere of Venus. Writing in Sky & Telescope, writer David Dickson includes a shout-out to the amateur astronomers who capture an impressive amount of detail of the second planet. But he did not explain why amateur observations are important. Most professional telescopes cannot look at Venus since the planet does not rise far in the sky. The mountaintop observatories cannot point that close to the horizon. Even if they could, Venus is so close to the Sun that scientists risk burning out multi-million dollar instruments. Amateurs, on the other hand, don’t face these problems. But it takes skill to get anything more than an image of a fuzzy disc. A link at the end of Dickson’s article will take you to a 2004 article that shows what one amateur was able to do.

Exploring Deep Space

The Nasa/Ipac Teacher Astronomy Research Program (Nitarp) is a thirteen-month professional development program for science teachers that gets them involved in an actual astrophysics research project. WHSV reports on a Virginia teacher who brought two students into his research project. [Last year I interviewed Florida teacher Linda Childs about her experience in Nitarp.]

A new preprint (arXiv: 1701.04817) describes AstroImageJ, a research-grade astronomy app that is accessible for high school students, undergraduates, and amateurs. The paper documents the program's features and performance for the scientific community. It also describes how amateur astronomers working on the KELT project have used the software to make their exoplanet discoveries.

Astrophysicists at the University of Notre Dame recently observed the surprising dimming of a binary star system. Much of their work relied on data from the Kepler Space Telescope and the university’s recently opened Sarah L Krizmanich Telescope. A team of amateur astronomers with the American Association of Variable Star Observers contributed time series observations. A preprint (arXiv: 1609.01026) lists the twelve contributors as co-authors.

Another preprint (arXiv: 1701.01857) describes citizen science-enabled research. Scientistsused Hubble data to study green pea galaxies. First discovered by citizen scientists contributing to the Galaxy Zoo project, green pea galaxies have regions of intense star formation that made them look green in the project’s false-color images. The authors of this study used the nearby green pea galaxies as analogs for the Universe’s first galaxies. The James Webb Space Telescope should be powerful enough to observe these galaxies, but astronomers need to understand how to process the data. Observing the citizen scientists’ discovery with Hubble let them do a dry-run.

Alabama's WAAY-TV interviewed a Nasa astrophysicist who wants the public to help the search for gravitational waves. Tyson Littenberg is a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Ligo) collaboration. He is also the lead scientist for Gravity Spy, a citizen science project that will help make Ligo's work more efficient. Littenberg explains why ordinary people can do things computers can't and how their contribution could help scientists peer into colliding neutron stars and the earliest days of the Universe.

The Milky Way Project enlists citizen scientists to map the bubbles and shock waves created when stars burst to life. The blast of stellar wind pushes away the surrounding clouds of interstellar gas. This creates structures that look like bubbles in space telescope images. The Milky Way Project re-launched last October and received 500,000 classifications within a few months. That still leaves 1,500,000 classifications to go to hit their goal of mapping star-forming regions in our galaxy. 

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

A summer school for European teachers will use space science to introduce inquiry-based learning techniques. The Mars Mission Summer School will challenge the teachers to plan an expedition to the red planet. The weeklong workshop will be held in Athens, Greece, in early July.

A Jordanian balances her career in the aviation industry with motherhood and a rapidly expanding astronomy-focused presence on social media. The United Arab Emirates' main paper The National profiled Salam Katanani whose Arabic-language Instagram videos have attracted more than 35,000 followers over the past six months.

Twenty-five Australian girls spent two weeks at Nasa's Johnson Space Center, the Sudney Morning Herald reports. They were part of a program to encourage more young women to pursue studies and careers in science and engineering. The group toured the Mission Control Center, dined with astronauts, and attended hands-on workshops with space technology.