Amateur Space Weekly - February 21

China's high school CubeSat completes mission, storm-spotting in America, and the worldwide citizen science search for Planet 9. 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.

  • Featured News: The power of citizen science, searching for asteroids, and more.
  • Space Makers: Two US high schools tapped for a Nasa launch, China's teen-built satellite completes mission, and Copenhagen Suborbitals rocket test.
  • Amateurs in Space: Space X carries teen-built spare parts and science to the space station, and there's an app for getting into space.
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdsourcing earthquake maps, Volunteer storm-spotting, fighting malaria from space, 33 years of volunteer weather reporting.
  • Exploring the Solar System: A new citizen science search for Planet 9, scientists need the public's help studying Jupiter, a first paper for Martian citizen science project, and a meteor of Pennsylvania.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Teen discovers rare star, a public search for exoplanets.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Dubai's high-tech public observatory, dark sky tourism in Britain.

Featured News

Space Makers

Nasa lets education-focused CubeSats hitch a free ride into orbit on its regular rocket launches. Astronauts will release some of them from the International Space Station while others will go directly into orbit. Source: Nasa CubeSat Launch Initiative

Nasa’s CubeSat Launch Initiative announced its 8th class of small satellites that will hitch a ride into orbit on the space agency’s launches. Two satellites designed by teenagers made the list alongside projects from major university’s and Nasa’s own space centers. One of those, TJ-Reverb, was designed by students at the Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia. Their first satellite reached orbit in 2015 but failed to radio home. TJ-Reverb is the students’ second attempt. Think about that. The news here isn’t that teenagers designed a satellite. It’s that teenagers had a backup plan to launch a second satellite.

The amateur rocket-makers at Copenhagen Suborbitals live streamed a test of their BPM5 rocket engine. The four hour video provides a wealth of information about their efforts to build a human-rated suborbital rocket. But if you want to skip all of that, the final countdown begins at the 3:50:40 mark. You can also check out their post about scale testing of their capsule design.

High school students in China were the first to have their Cubesat work in orbit, Amsat-UK reports. American schools have sent small DIY satellites into space, but the BY70-1 was the first to have its amateur radio transponder work in orbit. An announcement on the school's website (in Chinese and English) asks for help from the world's amateur radio enthusiasts. They can send any audio or video data they received from the satellite during its two-months in space.

Amateurs in Space

Over the weekend SpaceX launched the latest cargo mission to the International Space Station. Media coverage focused on the launch site which hosted Saturn V and Space Shuttle launches. However, schools across the United States watched the launch because they had a lot riding on the Falcon 9. No, really. There was a lot of stuff on board.

Many high school students watched because they had built spare parts for the space station. Nasa’s Hunch program (an acronym I won’t unpack) fosters 21st Century manufacturing skills in America’s high schools. It challenges teens to manufacture replacement storage lockers and other parts that meet the space agency’s exacting standards. The Lockport Journal reported on the students in northern New York whose lockers rode a Dragon into space. Several other reports covered the signing ceremonies conducted as schools handed over their work to Nasa officials for launch later this year. You can check them out at Michigan’s Bedford Now and Ohio’s Toledo Blade.

Other students watched the SpaceX launch because their science experiments were heading into space. Schools across the US and Canada take part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. It gives kids a shot at sending zero-g research projects to the space station. Here are just some of the schools and experiments covered in the news last week:

The Mother Nature Network looked at a competition that could send you into space. A couple of startup companies, one in Finland and the other in America, are offering normal people a chance to go to the International Space Station by using an app. People can win a spot in astronaut training school by using the app - and later a chance to go into orbit. But MNN writer Michael D'Estries does raise a question most media have not asked: where do you buy a ticket into space?

Exploring Earth

Public reporting let the USGS create this crowdsourced map of earthquake intensity following a M4.5 quake last week. Source: USGS

A magnitude 4.5 earthquake shook Hawai’i on Friday. Public reports flooded the US Geological Survey’s Did You Feel It crowdsourcing service within seconds. Within two hours, more than 1,300 people described the shaking they felt (the final count came to 1,556). USGS seismologists use the data to map an earthquake’s intensity. The public reports arrive so quickly that the USGS can get these maps to emergency responders much faster than if they relied on the agency’s own seismic stations. Maui Now reported that the quake did not trigger a tsunami or affect volcanic eruptions.

The National Weather Service trains first responders and the public to spot extreme weather, the Searcy Daily Citizen reports. As spring approaches, the NWS is stepping up its storm-spotting training. SkyWarn is a network of more than 200,000 volunteers who report extreme weather conditions to the local NWS field office. Weather radar can only see the moisture in the air. It cannot see cloud formations - or even tell whether rain is reaching the ground. Storm spotters provide forecasters with the ground truth needed to improve severe storm warnings and make their communities safer.

Digital Globe has enlisted citizen scientists on two fronts in the fight against malaria. They use images from the remote sensing company's fleet of high-resolution satellites. First the tens of thousands of citizen scientists working on the Tomnod crowdsourcing platform flag images containing buildings. This is an important step since Digital Globe's library has millions of pictures and only 10% have buildings in them. The Tomnod citizen scientists filter that vast store to produce a smaller set of images. Hundreds of volunteers at the Openstreetmap project take that smaller data set and map each and every building. This gives local health officials and organizations fighting malaria a way to better allocate their resources and target areas where the disease-carrying mosquitos are most likely to breed.

A New York real estate agent devoted the past 33 years to reporting weather data, the Daily Star reports. Watching the weather is one of the oldest forms of citizen science. Weather agencies' instruments are so widely spaced that they rely on volunteers to report local weather conditions. In the United States the National Weather Service turns to hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Its Cooperative Observer Program has been collecting temperature and rainfall data for more than a century, providing a valuable baseline for forecasting and climate research.

Exploring the Solar System

The Zooniverse crowdsourced science platform and Nasa scientists launched Backyard Worlds. The citizen science project enlists the public’s help in the search for our ninth planet. No, not Pluto. Scientists studying the many Pluto-like objects orbiting beyond Neptune noticed slight discrepancies between where physics says they should be and the objects’ actual orbits. Computer simulations indicate that a Neptune-sized planet could be the cause. The trouble is, most astronomers are not set up to perform this kind of search. The scientists hope the public can apply their natural pattern-recognition expertise to the analysis of images from a space telescope. The discoverer of the new ninth planet could be you.

Citizen scientists are an essential part of Nasa’s Juno mission, Science News reports. The mission does not have a dedicated staff of image processors. As a result, scientists must rely on the public’s interpretations of the images Juno sends back.

Planet Four: Terrains submitted their first paper to the journal Icarus. It introduces the citizen science project to the scientific community and describes the spiders and swiss cheese terrain that the scientists hope to study. Once the paper passes peer review, it will serve as the foundation upon which the science team will build their citizen science driven research.

More than 60 people reported a meteor streaking across the sky over Pennsylvania. The American Meteor Society used the reports to calculate the meteor's trajectory. It disappeared somewhere over Scranton, but no word yet on meteorite falls. Reporting fireballs (things brighter than shooting stars) is an easy way to help science. The easiest way is to load the AMS app on your iPhone or Android phone. When you see a fireball, aim the phone in the direction of the sky where it was and estimate its brightness. The app uses GPS to calculate your vantage point and submits the report.

Exploring Deep Space

A Texas teenager discovered one of the rarest stars in the Milky Way. Derek Hornung attended a summer study program at Southern Methodist University. During one of his projects he analyzed variable star data from a seventeen year old archive. The telescope, built in 1997, was decommissioned in 2001 but its data remains for scientists to study years later. Homung spotted an unusual pattern in a star’s light curve. Professional astronomers spent several years conducting observations and trying to figure out why the star was so unusual. It turns out the star is a “triple-mode high amplitude delta Scuti”. It expands in three dimensions ten times every Earth day. As it expands and contracts the star’s brightness increases and decreases more than 10%. The star has a temporary catalog name of J232056.45+345150.9 - I’m sure suggestions would be welcome.

MIT unveiled a public archive for exoplanet searches. The data comes from the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii, but it takes an approach different from Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope. The space agency’s planet-hunting mission looks for transits, the mini-eclipses that happen when an exoplanet passes between its star and Earth. The Earthbound Planet Search collects radial velocity data, the doppler shift that happens as an exoplanet tugs its star back and forth. “We realized there just aren’t enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset,” said MIT astronomer Jennifer Burt. “I think this opens up possibilities for anyone who wants to do this kind of work, whether you’re an academic or someone in the general public who’s excited about exoplanets.”

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

The Guardian listed some of top astronomy tourism sites in the United Kingdom. Britain’s National Parks system held a Dark Skies Festival last week to celebrate its International Dark Sky Association certified parks. The Guardian looked at these and other places where stargazing enthusiasts can go for great views of the night sky. When it isn’t raining.

Nobody ever accused Dubai of doing things by half. A public observatory uses submarine-grade stainless steel to protect its telescopes, The National reports. The building itself is designed to withstand 400kph winds while keeping out the sand and dust that could contaminate delicate instruments. It opens to the public in April and will give the UAE's citizens and residents a new opportunity to study the Sun, planets, and stars.