Amateur Space Weekly - March 27

Astronauts trust Alabama teens with their lives, The Crowd & The Crowd features volunteer weather-spotters, and Spanish kids discover stars that share an atmosphere. 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, Canadian rover-designers, and British youth exploring Near Space.
  • Amateurs in Space: Astronauts entrust their lives to Alabama teens’ maker skills
  • Exploring Earth: Report rainfall for science, and a photography contest for weather snaps.
  • Exploring the Solar System: New data helps citizens search for Planet 9, and pro-am collaboration helps track meteors over Sweden and America.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Spanish kids discover stars that share an atmosphere, unearthing cosmic data in historical texts, studying spiral galaxies.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Kiwi observatory turns 50, UK teen spots error in space station’s radiation sensor, an oral history of the Sputnik-spotters, astronomy outreach in Haiti, and the never-fulfilled promise of lunar tourism.

Space Makers

The University of Southern California's undergraduate rocket team set an altitude record for student-built rockets. Their next step is to launch a rocket across the boundary of Outer Space. Credit: Megan Frisk

The Team America Rocketry Challenge will gather thousands of kid to the largest rocket-launching competition in the world. The contest gets kids interested in science and engineering while giving them a shot at scholarships. The winner will represent the United States in international competition at the Paris Air Show this summer. The final round of qualifying launches are happening over the next few days. The West Plains Daily Quill reported on Missouri teens preparing for their qualifiers. The Kilgore News Herald reported on a Texas high school's rocket science class. The math and science they learn in the class helps the students design better-performing rockets for the competition.

The University of Southern California has its own team of rocket-builders - and all of them are undergraduates. Last week they conducted the latest launch of their Fathom II rocket. It beat the record for a university-built rocket, soaring 144,000 feet above the New Mexico desert. Unlike previous record holders, the Fathom II consists of parts entirely made by students. Check out USC’s news site for more detail about the rocket and its launch:

The Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge is only a few months away. Student-led teams around the world are putting the finishing touches on their entries. They had to design automated rovers that navigate Mars-like terrain and perform tasks that could assist astronauts. The competition is held every year in the deserts of the American Southwest. Ryerson University’s campus newspaper reported on a Canadian team’s innovative rover design. Spring-loaded wheels let the rover climb much steeper slopes than any competing rover on Earth - or on Mars.

British school kids conducted their own mission to the edge of space, the Hertfordshire Advertiser reported. More than 70 students planned the balloon project and another 2000 turned out to watch the launch. The balloon climbed more than 100,000 feet into the stratosphere, transmitting data back to the ground as it went. Stronger-than-expected winds carried the balloon over the English Channel.

Amateurs in Space

Nasa’s Hunch program gives teens experience using modern manufacturing technology. The students make supplies, such as storage lockers, that meet Nasa’s exacting standards. Spacewalking astronauts trust Alabama's student makers with their lives. WAAY reported from Austin High School where student machinists make screws that secure astronauts’ boots to the outside of the space station.

Exploring Earth

Amateur meteorologists appear in a new documentary series, Colorado State University announced. America's public television network (yes, we still have one) will air The Crowd & The Cloud beginning April 6. The four-part series looks at the way citizen scientists help professionals conduct significant research. The opening episode features Cocorahs, a network of volunteers who report daily rainfall data.

Weather happens on such a local scale that measurements at widely-separated official weather stations can miss severe storms. The crowdsourced records of rain, snow, and hail help professionals fill in the gaps. That creates better weather forecasts, more reliable assessments of flood risks, and more efficient emergency planning.

Cocorahs has conducted a month-long campaign to recruit volunteer weather monitors. Its version of March Madness has state-level organizations compete to recruit the most new volunteers. Blueridge Now reported on the North Carolina campaign. WMBF reported on South Carolina’s weather spotters. NJ1015 spoke with weather enthusiasts in New Jersey. The Rocky Mount Telegram heard from a meteorologist who relies on Colorado’s weather geeks.

The 2017 Weather Photographer of the Year competition kicked off last week. The Royal Meteorological Society and Royal Photographic Society sponsor the international competition to help tell stories about weather’s impact. The RMetS will announce the winners this Fall at the Amateur Meteorologist Conference.

Exploring the Solar System

The citizen science project Backyard Worlds may lead discover a new planet in our Solar System. Credit: Backyard Worlds

Citizen scientists will get more data to search for the mysterious Planet 9, the Australian National University announced. Our Solar System was left with only eight planets after astronomers officially downgraded Pluto from the ranks of major planets (they had their reasons). Nasa-sponsored researchers recently found hints of a Neptune-sized planet orbiting the Sun even farther out. Their evidence lies in the ways Pluto-sized objects in the Outer Solar System don’t quite follow orbits that theory predicts. The gravitational effect of another planet is a logical explanation - the trick is proving it. Backyard Worlds is a Nasa-sponsored crowdsourcing project that presents the public with images from an infrared space telescope and asks them to mark objects that appear to move. ANU scientists are adding visible light images to the search. The more data - and the more people looking at the data - the better the chance that we can find a strand new world close to home.

A large fireball streaked over the skies of Stockholm, reported Sweden Local. A network of professional and amateur meteor-spotters, the Swedish All-Sky Meteor Network, recorded video of the event. Tracking meteors is a great way for amateurs to help professionals. In this case, the amateurs install video cameras with fisheye lenses that record the night sky. The cameras record any meteoroid large enough to produce a fireball. Analyzing the video from several cameras lets the professionals triangulate the meteor’s path, increasing the chances of finding meteorites.

The American Meteor Society has another way to do this. It crowdsources reports of fireballs from the public through its website and smartphone app. No given individual report is all that accurate. But combining hundreds of reports lets the AMS triangulate the fireball’s path. Besides tracking meteorites, these meteor networks can trace the original meteoroid’s origins in the Solar System which adds more context to the science.

Exploring Deep Space

Two stars can orbit each other so closely that their outer layers merge. Teenagers in Spain discovered two of these binary star systems in 17-year old astronomy archives. Credit: IAC

Spanish schoolchildren discovered stars orbiting so closely together they share atmospheres, the IAC announced. Their math teacher, Carlos Morales Socorro, explained the discovery on his blog. His students “applied elements of Algebra, Analysis, Statistics, to automate massive mathematical processes with Spreadsheets, to perform photometric analysis, ... were able to discover what had been hidden for more than 17 years.” Each contact binary star system consists of two stars orbiting so closely together that they share an outer layer of gas. 

Astronomy Rewind is a new citizen science project that hopes to bring old data back to life. Hosted by crowdsourcing service Zooniverse, it asks people to find images of celestial objects in scientific papers published by the American Astronomical Society over the past century. Those images are not accessible to computer search systems. “It turns out that machines aren’t very good at recognizing celestial images on digitized pages that contain a mixture of text and graphics,” project scientist Alberto Accomazzi said in the press release. “And they really get confused with multiple images of the sky on the same page. Humans do much better.” Astronomy Rewind asks the public to flag these images so scientists can map the objects to celestial coordinates. That will give professionals and the public easy searchable access to these archives. AAS Director of Publishing Julie Steffen said, “You simply couldn’t do a project like this in any reasonable amount of time without ‘crowdsourcing.’”

The latest example of citizen science enabling astronomy research appeared on the GalaxyZoo blog. PhD student Ross Hart explained how he used the volunteer classification to compare star formation in two-arm and multi-arm spiral galaxies. The full paper is available online (arXiv: 1703.02053).

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Few people outside the Soviet Union got this close to Sputnik. Amateur astronomers around the world, however, helped professionals track the world's first satellite. Source: Nasa

Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute wants to speak with the world’s original satellite spotters, Cambridge News reports. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik caught western scientists and militaries off guard. As a result, the network of observatories meant to track the satellite were not ready. Professionals had to call on amateur stargazers to watch for and report sightings of the bright pinpoint of light cruising across the night sky. The University's Polar Museum wants to create an oral history of the event for its remembrance of the International Geophysical Year.

A planetarium’s laser light show entertains visitors while teaching a little about the Universe. But a public observatory connects people with the night sky directly. New Zealand’s Stardome Observatory celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. The New Zealand Herald interviewed the observatory’s director about its history, scientific research, and value to the public.

A British teenager spotted errors in Nasa’s radiation detectors, the BBC reports. The data came from gamma ray detectors inside the International Space Station. The detectors let the space agency’s doctors manage astronauts’ exposure to cancer-causing radiation. UK student Miles Soloman participated in Research in Schools, a program that lets teens conduct original research using data from observatories around the world - and beyond. Soloman noticed that the detectors were consistently reporting negative energy levels - a low-level glitch that Nasa missed.

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell featured its astronomy outreach program in Haiti. Faculty and students from the university travelled to Haiti to teach classes and conduct teacher workshops.

SpaceNews wrote a short history of lunar space tourism. Very little of that history got beyond the Powerpoint stage. Elon Musk’s promise to send a couple of millionaires on a there-and-back-again loop is the next hope for space enthusiasts (at least the rich ones).