Amateur Space Weekly - March 20

SpaceX brings teen science back to Earth, citizen science helps typhoon recovery, and amateurs get to name their own asteroids. 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: Teen rocketeers in New York, undergrad rocket outreach in California, and an undergrad Near Space balloon flight.
  • Amateurs in Space: SpaceX brings teen science projects back to Earth, Italian students will send science to the Moon, Colorado high school students’ $10K space project, and Alabama teens making stuff for Nasa.
  • Exploring Earth: Spying on Earth for a cause, weather spotting makes communities safer, and teens compete for deep ocean X-Prize.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Amateurs name their asteroid discoveries.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Merging astronomy and design, and searching for gravitational waves.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Denmark earns first Dark Sky certification in Scandinavia.

Space Makers

A Western New York rocket club helps local students compete in a national rocket contest, the LCN reports. In the process they encourage teens to pursue careers in science and engineering. The Team America Rocketry Challenge organizes the United States' largest model rocketry competition. Thousands of teens across the country and as far away as the US Virgin Islands design their own model rockets to meet the contest's performance goals.  One hundred teams will be chosen based on their performance in qualifying launches.  

University rocketeers paid it forward by conducting model rocket launches at a California high school, the Santa Clarita Valley Sentinel reported. The undergraduate engineers are on the Loyola Marymount University rocket team. They are competing in this year’s Nasa Student Launch competition. Later this spring they will launch their DIY rocket more than a mile into the skies over Alabama. The year-long program follows many of the processes used by Nasa’s own rocket projects - including education outreach. One of the team members is a Trinity Classical Academy graduate. He returned to his alma mater with his teammates to conduct a model rocket launch and talk about engineering careers.

Students at UC Berkeley will conduct a Near Space balloon flight, the Berkeleyside reports. Along with the obligatory GoPro camera and ham radio gear, it will sample the atmosphere for a microbiologist.

Amateurs in Space

A little charred on the outside, but the student experiments that rode the Dragon back from space should be fine. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX just returned two dozen student experiments from orbit. This is the ninth mission the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has sent to the International Space Station. The SSEP has helped more than 70,000 kids across the US and Canada take part in space research. This mission included 21 experiments. Among them, an elementary school in Vancouver, British Columbia, sent red worms into space to see how well they compost food waste in zero-g. A Texas high school tested the effect of perchlorates on seed germination in simulated Martian soil. Students at these and nineteen other schools will use the data to compare with control experiments run on the ground. The tenth and eleventh SSEP missions are waiting for launch dates this year. The twelfth SSEP mission opened for applications earlier this month.

Colorado students’ space centrifuge is waiting for a ride into space, Denver’s CBS affiliate reported. They won a $10,000 grant from the Center for Advancement of Science in Space to develop a microgravity experiment. The teens designed a small centrifuge that will simulate different levels of gravity. They hope to compare the way bacteria grow under different conditions.

Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center highlighted an Alabama school whose students have sent equipment into space. They participate in High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware. Hunch is part of Nasa's efforts to foster America's modern manufacturing industry. Students learn how to use modern manufacturing tools by building spare parts for the International Space Station. The Alabama students made bolts that will hold science experiments in place as well as a brush astronauts will use on future spacewalks.

Exploring Earth

Smithsonian Magazine looks at three scientists who use data from Planet's imaging satellites. Long the domain of the space industry, images from Earth observation satellites are now in the hands of humanitarians and environmentalists. This is thanks to a new breed of space startups like Planet. They are deploying constellations of remote sensing satellites.  Ultimately, Planet will be able to take pictures of the entire Earth every day. Activists already use remote sensing data to monitor illegal fishing, deforestation, and war crimes. The work highlight in this new article highlights scientists’ work on coral bleaching, glacier erosion, and food security.

Missouri added 100 storm spotters in one shot, the News Press reported. The volunteers attended a training session for the National Weather Service’s Skywarn program. More than 400,000 people across the country help the weather agency monitor extreme weather. This is a crucial role as weather radars only see what’s happening thousands of feet above the ground. Skywarn storm spotters give meteorologists valuable ground truth that makes warnings more accurate.

Cocorahs is another volunteer weather network. Every day, amateur meteorologists measure the fall of rain, snow, and hail. Their reports help professionals improve their forecasts. They also help emergency planners understand the risk of flooding and other weather-related disasters. Action News Jacksonville reported from a recent Cocorahs training session. Florida’s thunderstorms can be extremely concentrated. An official weather station might not see a drop of rain while a mile down the road torrents of rain flood neighborhoods. Florida's Cocorahs volunteers help fill in the gaps and make their communities safer.

Citizen scientists will help map destruction from Cyclone Enawo. The storm carved a path of destruction across Madagascar last week that sent more than 100,000 people into relief shelters. Satellite imaging company DigitalGlobe announced their release of space-based pictures to help the island nation's recovery effort. A global network of volunteers is mapping the destruction seen in the images to help the Red Cross prioritize its limited resources.

Teens will explore the last great frontier on Earth -  below the ocean’s surface. The X-Prize Foundation and Shell Oil Company have set up the Ocean Discovery Challenge. They want to advance the technology of seafloor mapping. Today’s satellites cannot penetrate deep beneath the waves. Ship-based sonar and can only scan shallow waters. Most submarines cannot reach the deepest areas. Team Ocean Quest is a group of California teenagers competing side-by-side with professional explorers, university teams, and makers.Theypreviously adapted Microsoft’s Internet of Things technology to manage a laboratory on the International Space Station. Now the teens will use the same tech to explore the oceans.

Exploring the Solar System

Two Italian students may send their technology to the Moon. They won Lab2Moon, a contest which challenges students to develop a space experiment. The contest was run by TeamIndus, India’s only competitor in the Google Lunar X-Prize. It will carry the winning prize on its pioneering mission to the lunar surface. The students on Space4Life have designed a shield that uses cyanobacteria to block radiation. They hope that a sustainable, renewable shield technology will make space exploration safer and more affordable.

Smithsonian Magazine has a good piece explaining how celestial objects get their names. Not all of it is done by professional astronomers. They spoke with an amateur astronomer in Kansas who has discovered 300 asteroids - and a comet - from his backyard observatory.

Exploring Deep Space

Professor Jayanne English used this image to explain how techniques from visual design and photography helped create a sense of depth and dynamism in data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Science and design let astronomers create public outreach images with impact. That’s what astrophysicist Jayanne English explains in her paper “Canvas and Cosmos: Visual Art Techniques Applied to Astronomy Data” in the International Journal of Modern Physics D (Paywall article DOI: 10.1142/S0218271817300105, free preprint arXiv: 1703.04183). The Canadian scientist originally planned a career in the arts before switching to physics in college. English addresses professional astronomers in her paper, helping them to create publicly engaging yet scientifically rigorous images through the use of visual grammar. You can see examples of her photography on Jayanne’s Cosmic Portfolio.

Scientists highlighted citizen scientists' efforts to support gravitational wave research. The Laser Interferometry Gravitational-wave Observatory (Ligo) uses extremely sensitive instruments to detect ripples in space-time created by ancient black hole collisions. The latest issue of Ligo’s news magazine features the citizen science project Gravity Spy. The public reviews images from Ligo for signs of "glitches". These are noise in the data that can mask signals from actual gravitational waves. Computer algorithms are not as good at spotting these glitches as people. The citizen scientists' contributions help teach algorithms to get better. In the process the Ligo science team gets higher quality data to analyze.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Denmark received its first Dark Sky designation. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recognizes parks and communities that have enacted policies to reduce light pollution and protect the night sky. The growing popularity of astronomy tourism makes IDA Dark Sky certification an economically beneficial honor. The islands of Møn and Nyord received Gold-Tier Dark Sky Park certification - the first in Scandinavia and only the ninth in Europe. The populated area of Nyord received Dark Sky Community certification for its commitment to limit light pollution. “From Copenhagen, you can see approximately 100 stars,” explained Mayor Knud Larsen. “From Møn and Nyord, we can see more than 5,000 stars in our uniquely dark skies.”