Amateur Space Weekly - January 30

Space Linguine controls space station robots, search for ancient civilizations from space, and China’s supernova-spotters. 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: New contest for university rocket-makers and a PocketQube workshop.
  • Amateurs in Space: US/Italian team Space Linguine wins teen coding contest, UAE’s teen DNA researchers, kids making hardware and dessert for astronauts, student science picked for ride into space
  • Exploring Earth: Citizen scientists search for ancient civilizations
  • Exploring the Solar System: Finding ridges on Mars, meteorites in Canada, interplanetary dust in Norway, and asteroids in space (where they belong).
  • Exploring Deep Space: China’s citizen science supernova spotters
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Astronomy outreach, 2017 Citizen Science Day, and crowdfunding solar eclipse glasses

Space Makers

Friends of Amateur Rocketry will host the Mars Society's rocket contest at its desert launch site next year. Credit: FAR

Friends of Amateur Rocketry will host the Mars Society's rocket contest at its desert launch site next year. Credit: FAR

The Mars Society just announced a rocket-building contest for colleges and universities. The undergraduate rocketeers must design a liquid fueled rocket that can lift a 2.2lb payload at least 30,000 feet. The rocket that comes closest to the 45,000 foot target altitude will win a $50,000 scholarship prize for their school. Entries are open now and launches will take place in 2018. Check out the Mars Society's website for more:

DIY satellite makers can attend a PocketQube workshop in the Netherlands later this year. PocketQubes are the latest evolution of mini satellites for educational and amateur satellite-makers. University professors in California developed the original CubeSat back in the 1990s to address a problem they saw in aerospace engineering education. A traditional satellite project takes years, even decades, to complete. That meant students only got brief glimpses of a development project, leaving them unprepared for careers in industry. The CubeSat took advantage of miniaturization and consumer technology to make a one-year or two-year satellite project possible. Technology has gotten even smaller over the past twenty years which makes smaller projects possible - and more accessible. To see what that means, check out my article about IT system administrator Stuart McAndrew's plans to send the first Aussie PocketQube into orbit.

Amateurs in Space

Astronauts pose with the Spheres robots on the International Space Station. Credit: Nasa

The 2017 Zero Robotics High School Tournament took place last week. Students gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the European Space Agency, and the University of Sydney to watch robots zip around the International Space Station. That would be exciting enough, but the software running the robots was written by the students themselves. Over the past year teens learned how to program Nasa’s Spheres robots. They practiced in a virtual environment before entering qualifying rounds. Finalists formed teams with partner schools in other countries to develop their final code which was uploaded into space last week. Space Linguine, an alliance of students from two Italian schools and an American school, won the competition. If you missed it, you can catch the five-hour webcast on MIT’s website.

This week the UAE will name the first student-led project to conduct genetic research in outer space. It is the culmination of Genes in Space, an annual competition to engage students in scientific research. The UAE Space Agency and The National selected the finalists last year. Ranging in age from thirteen to fifteen years old, the students have spent the past two months working with professional scientists at major universities to develop their proposed experiment. A review panel will evaluate the proposals at this week’s Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi. Fourteen year old finalist Alia Al Mansouri attended last week’s Project Space conference and spoke with The National about her aspirations to set foot on Mars. The Dubai native hopes to study the way microgravity alters protein expression and its role in premature cell death.

When Nasa needs spare parts for the International Space Station, it turns to a surprising source - high school students. A program called Hunch (it’s a long acronym) enlists schools with modern machine shop programs. The students learn how to make storage lockers and other supplies to the space agency’s exacting standards. Once they meet the grade, Nasa buys the hardware and sends it into orbit. In a ceremony this week, the Connecticut Post reported, high school students will sign their names on a storage locker they built for the International Space Station. The program also runs a contest for high schools with culinary arts courses. The Hunch Culinary Challenge asks students to design a meal for astronauts that meets Nasa’s nutritional requirements and is zero-g friendly - you can’t have crumbs floating into sensitive electronics. This year’s contest asks the kids to create a dessert. The Decatur Daily spoke with culinary students and teachers at Austin High School where their counterparts in the school’s engineering program already send spare parts to the space station.

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 McAllen Independent School District announced that research designed by three Texas students will ride into orbit this spring. The San Diego Tribune interviewed the California girls whose flatworm research will blast off into orbit this summer.

Exploring Earth

The Nasca civilization created geometric shapes that can only be seen from the air... or space. GlobalXplorer will let you search for signs of ancient Peruvian civilizations in images from orbit. Credit: Nasa / GSFC / MITI / ERSDAC / Jaros, and US/Japan Aster Science Team

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

GlobalXplorer is a new citizen science project that combines Star Trek with Indiana Jones. It teaches you how to search for signs of ancient civilizations in Peru by scanning images from orbiting satellites. The project builds on the pioneering work of space archaeologist Sarah Parcak. She has used satellite images to discover ruins of ancient Egypt and the Viking settlements in North America. "If we don't go and find these sites, looters will” she explained to National Geographic. The relative handful of professional archaeologists is dwarfed by the number of citizen scientists around the world. Parcak hopes Peru will be just the first history-rich region the people of Earth can help preserve.

Exploring the Solar System

Earlier this month saw the launch of the Planet Four: Ridges citizen science project. It enlists the public’s help mapping ridges, some of them several kilometers high, on the surface of Mars. Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced its support of the project in a press release issued last week. JPL scientist Laura Kerber explained that some of the ridges “are really key to understanding the history of early Mars.” The journal Icarus published Kerber’s research in its January issue (paywall doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2016.08.020)

A Canadian meteorite hunter discovered his passion for space rocks at the age of five, the CBC reported. A rain of rocks and dust falls on Earth from space. Nasa estimates that about forty-four metric tons of space rocks and comet dust enter the atmosphere every year. Most of that disintegrates in the upper atmosphere, but some meteorites do reach the ground. Professional meteoriticists concentrate their searches on the deserts of north Africa, western Australia, and Antarctica where the arid environment preserves the meteorites for centuries. Most amateur meteorite-hunters focus on more localized searches. 

Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz guitarist, found a much closer source of meteorites - up on the roof, Ars Technica reported. Amateurs have long argued in the face of professional scepticism that microscopic meteorite particles ought to be present in common city dust. Larsen collected three hundred kilograms of dust from rooftops in Norway and France and found forty-eight particles that could be meteorite dust. With the help of scientists at Imperial College London, Larson confirmed that all forty-eight particles were, indeed, micrometeorites. The results were originally announced last year. Now Larsen has produced a coffee table book about Project Stardust.

Astronomers Without Borders announced an educational program to search for asteroids. Each participating school gets a set of images from PAN-STARRS, a large telescope mounted atop a Hawaiian volcano. Students analyze the images for signs of asteroids moving across the field of stars. Since the program’s inception in 2006, students have discovered more than 1,500 asteroids. Applications are due by the middle of March. AWB will select one school per country for this special search campaign.

Exploring Deep Space

The Popular Supernova Project is a Chinese citizen science project that has discovered eleven supernova candidates in a little over fourteen months. It’s first discovery was made by a ten-year old student. Soon afterwards the number of participants in the Popular Supernova Project jumped to more than 100,000. The project runs on top of AstroCloud, China’s national archive for astrophysics observations, which scientists describe in a paper to be presented at an upcoming technology conference (arxiv: 1701.05641).

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The Journal Gazette & Times-Courier interviewed a South Carolina doctor honored for his astronomy outreach. Although he downplayed his role as “just having fun”, the report makes it clear that Tim Camden earned his community’s respect.

Citizen Science Day is actually a month-long event that begins April 15 and ends May 20 at the Citizen Science Association Conference. Hundreds of local events will encourage people to take part in citizen science activities in their communities.

A new crowdfunding campaign will let Argentinian schoolkids watch February’s solar eclipse. Hosted by Fiat Physica, the campaign wants to raise $2000 to send 2000 solar glasses to the South American country.