Amateur Space Weekly - January 3

Europe kicks off its CanSat competition, how to mine asteroids, and Canon lenses make great telescopes.  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: Amateur rocketry, CanSat competitions, and near space ballooning
  • Amateurs in Space: Zero-g research for German college students and for teens in North America.
  • Exploring Earth: Trinidad & Tobago's teens study earthquakes to make their island safer; recruiting the public to study earthquakes, rainfall, and radiation.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Recreating Mars on Earth, and everything you wanted to know about mining asteroids but couldn't afford to ask.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Crowdsourced science studies gravitational waves, galactic black holes, pulsars, and the occasional voorwerp; telephoto lenses make great telescopes; and amateurs' 16-year observation of a nova-like star.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: New space tourism developments from Virgin Galactic and World View Enterprises.

Space Makers

A peek inside a CanSat. The European Space Agency's annual competition challenges teens to build a model satellite that will continue operating through a high performance rocket launch. Source: ESA / Dário Cruz

The European Space Agency has kicked off its annual CanSat Competition. High school students across Europe will design model satellites the size of soda cans. The CanSats must withstand a high-performance rocket launch 1 kilometer into the sky and then collect data during the descent back to Earth. The STEM program encourages teens to pursue their studies in math and science and hopefully careers in Europe's space industry. Preliminary competitions will select national champions to compete at the European finals next June.

CanSat competitions aren't limited to traditional space powers. Space agencies in Asia organized a CanSat competition at an industry conference in the Philippines. This report from MyRepublica highlights the Nepali students whose model satellite builders competed with students across Asia.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) is the largest STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) competition in the US. The annual contest challenges teens to design, build, and launch their own rockets. Rocket teams are preparing for the qualifying launches which will determine whether they are among the 100 teams picked to launch rockets near Washington, DC, this summer. The Virgin Islands Consortium covered the induction ceremony for the US Virgin Islands' latest rocket team. Two years ago the first team placed in the top 20. Last year the US Virgin Islands fielded three teams of rocketeers. This year seventeen students have enrolled in the program.

Amateur rocketeers often struggle to find a place for their rocket launches despite a sixty year safety record. Wisconsin's state parks department has taken a small step towards solving that problem.  Wisconsin Public Radio reported that a new park will include a model rocket launch site. An AP report posted to the Minnesota Star Tribune quotes students from a high school rocket club who have to drive more than 100 miles to launch their rockets.

The folks at the crowdfunded all-volunteer rocket club describe Copenhagen Suborbital’s busy plans for 2017. Launches of their Nexø2 will test rocket, guidance, and other technologies. By the end of the year they will begin construction of the Spica - the first amateur-built rocket that will carry people across the threshold of space.

Three middle school girls decided to spend their summer building a high altitude balloon, the Baltimore Sun reported. It rose 100,000 feet over the Pennsylvania countryside but landed in dense woodland. Stratospheric ballooning is an inexpensive way for kids to get hands-on experience with a space-like engineering project. They have to design power systems, tracking systems, and data collection systems. In the end they get amazing pictures of Earth beneath the blackness of space.

Amateurs in Space

DLR, the German space agency, announced a new program for German university students that will send their experiments to the International Space Station in 2018. European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst will perform the experiments during his next tour 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. Over the past month several schools announced the experiments chosen for the SSEP’s Mission 11. MetroNews spoke with Canadian teens whose zero-g research will test the strength of concrete cured in space. Patch Ocean City reported on the Stockton University undergraduates whose research will study a fungus that attacks common crops. The Connecticut Post reported on the high school students whose water flea research will study the effect of zero-g on bacterial infections.

Exploring Earth

Trinidad & Tobago adopted the Seismology in Schools program to get more kids studying science and math. The program has kids build their own seismic station, analyze the data, and share it with schools around the world. This report from LoopTT highlights the Trinidadian students who analyzed a recent magnitude 6 earthquake. The Caribbean island nation is more likely to suffer from earthquakes than hurricanes, so the SiS program plays a big role in promoting earthquake safety. A worldwide network of seismology in school programs share their data through servers at America's Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. It is an educational program that encourages global cooperation among the young scientists.

This BBC report looks at MyShake’s use of smartphone motion detectors to monitor earthquakes. It is sensitive enough to detect magnitude 2.5 earthquakes. Comparing reports from many smartphones eliminates sources of noise like passing trucks. 200,000 people around the world have downloaded the app to their Android phones. An iPhone version is in the works for 2017.

Cocorahs is a network of weather spotters who report daily rain and snowfall measurements in the United States and Canada. The CBC reported on efforts to recruit Cocorahs volunteers on Prince Edwards Island.

The National Resource Defense Council just announced a new citizen science project that will crowdsource environmental radiation monitoring. By deploying inexpensive Internet-connected radiation detectors, people can help map radiation levels at the neighborhood level. 

Exploring the Solar System

Analog research projects simulate conditions on Mars so scientists and engineers can develop the tech and techniques needed to explore the red planet. This article from National Geographic reviews the many places around the world where space agencies conduct their research.

A recent conference brought scientists together with the startup companies that plan to mine asteroids. The companies wanted to get a better understanding of the issues they will face. The scientists released a preprint (arXiv: 1612.00709) that answers questions about asteroid mining. (OK, this isn’t amateur in any way but it is cool)

Exploring Deep Space

Citizen science is helping the search for gravitational waves thanks to the Gravity Spy project. It asks the public to identify glitches in data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). This will make it easier for scientists to detect the extremely faint distortion in space-time caused by collapsing black holes, merging neutron stars, and other extreme events in the Universe. The latest post on the Gravity Spy blog shows how little it takes for glitches to appear. Check out what happened when somebody forgot to unplug the phone and the phone rang.

Astronomy Magazine published an article about Einstein@Home's discovery of a binary pulsar star system. The distributed computing project harnesses the spare processing capacity of its volunteers' personal computers to form a virtual supercomputer. Astronomy interviews the project's director who explains what research the citizen scientists' contributions make possible.

One of citizen science's strengths is amateurs' ability to spot the unexpected. The now-classic example is Hanny's Voorwerp. A Dutch school teacher was classifying galaxies in the original Galaxy Zoo project when she spotted a strange green blob in one of the images. Her question in the project's forum led to an international research effort to figure out what Hanny's Voorwerp could be. (Voorwerp is Dutch for "object"). It turned out to be the fading echo of an outburst from the black hole at the center of a local galaxy. A recent blog post explains how seven years later scientists are still studying this citizen science discovery.

Crowdsourced astronomy project Radio Galaxy Zoo gets help from citizen scientists to study the radio emissions of Active Galactic Nucleii - the enormous black holes at the center of galaxies. A new blog post describes a subproject to search for giant radio galaxies. So far the project’s citizen scientists have discovered 201 candidates for professional follow-up.

Two recently-published papers demonstrate how “amateur” technology can produce cutting edge research. The XO Project has small observatories around the world that search for planets orbiting other stars. These are not giant mountaintop observatories - the astronomical cameras are attached to Canon telephoto lenses. A recent paper (arXiv:1612.02776) describes a hot Jupiter discovery. Another astronomy project that uses Canon lenses as telescopes is the Dragonfly Telescope Array. This paper (arXiv: 1612.06415) describes its latest iteration which acts like a 1-meter telescope to study faint galactic structures. Before you rush out to do this yourself, keep in mind that each of the forty-eight Canon 400mm telephoto lenses costs $10,000.

Amateurs with the Center for Backyard Astrophysics study variable stars and supernovae. Members recently published (arXiv: 1612.06883) the results of a 16-year campaign to observe a nova-like variable star.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Tourism has fueled the dreams of space cadets and entrepreneurs for more than a decade. After Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One earned the Ansari X-Prize by becoming the first privately financed spaceplane to fly into space twice, Richard Branson promised that his Virgin Galactic would ferry tourists across the 100km boundary of space. That was twelve years ago. After a tragic accident in 2015, the company resumed test flights last month. But Virgin Galactic's customers are patient. (If you can afford to drop $250K on a ticket, the money may not matter). In a Popular Mechanics article a Virgin Galactic customer explained how he has prepared for his ride into space and why he is willing to wait.

Arizona-based World View Enterprises wants to create a lower-flying but more leisurely experience. They want to send tourists into the stratosphere in capsules suspended beneath giant balloons. The company already conducts scientific balloon missions. The Arizona Daily Star reported that Pima County just completed construction of the buildings that will house World View’s headquarters and manufacturing operations.