Amateur Space Weekly - April 17

Puerto Ricans sweep Nasa competition, study Earth on Citizen Science Day, and dark skies over Australia attract tourists. 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: Middle school, high school, and university rocketry; Puerto Ricans sweep Nasa competition; amateur telescope making; and Near Space ballooning.
  • Amateurs in Space: Teenage Nasa contractors; schools doing zero-g science.
  • Exploring Earth: Noaa wants you to help study Earth; weather spotters in the US and Australia
  • Exploring the Solar System: Citizen science and stardust; spotting fireballs for science; and searching for Planet 9.
  • Exploring Deep Space: New research based on citizen science.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Dark skies support Australian tourism; space tourism in Asia; and how to borrow a telescope from your library.

Space Makers

Nasa's Student Launch competition sends high performance rockets soaring a mile above an Alabama farm. Credit: Nasa / MSFC / Charles Beason

Nasa's Student Launch competition sends high performance rockets soaring a mile above an Alabama farm. Credit: Nasa / MSFC / Charles Beason

Thousands of teens across the United States compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The annual contest asks middle school and high school students to design, build, and launch a model rocket. Throughout the school year kids refine their designs through dozens of test launches. Tarc announced the finalists in this year’s rocketry competition. The 101 teams come from 77 schools in 28 states and the US Virgin Islands. The winners of this year’s Tarc will travel to the Paris Air Show where they will represent the United States in international competition.

Nasa held its Student Launch competition earlier this month. Every year the space agency invites teams from universities across the US to develop a high performance rocket capable of reaching mile-high altitudes. The University of Notre Dame won this year’s altitude prize by coming within six feet of the 5,280 foot target altitude. But Student Launch is not limited to universities. Nasa also invites middle schools and high schools who perform well in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Krueger Middle School from San Antonio, Texas, won the altitude prize in the secondary school division for its 5,325 foot flight. Check out Nasa’s announcement for the full list of prize winners

The National Association of Rocketry conducts launch contests for rocketeers of all ages. The sixty year organization has struggled with recent cultural trends as more people prefer “bowling alone” to joining community organizations. Traditionally large regional contests precede the NAR’s national competitions. But those depend on thriving and active rocket clubs with the resources to hold large events. Rule changes in the NAR’s rocket contests will eliminate large, regional launch competitions in favor of smaller, local qualifiers. The Chieftain spoke with Coloradans witnessing the end of an era as the last Southern Colorado Rocketeers Regional Contest took place.

Puerto Ricans won top honors at Nasa’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge. The annual contest challenges students to design human-powered vehicles that can navigate a simulated lunar or martian terrain. They edged out nearly one hundred other teams from across the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and India.

Once the only way to get a quality view of the stars, amateur telescope making has become more of a niche hobby. It is now more cost-effective to buy a telescope from manufacturers like Celestron. Unless you want to go big. Cosmoquest posted an article about an amateur-built telescope 1.8 meters (70 inches) across. The world’s largest amateur telescope, it uses a military surplus mirror originally made for spy satellites. The telescope has a new home at an astronomy site in Utah.

Public outreach is another factor keeping amateur telescope-making alive. The hands-on experience of building your own telescope can create long lasting commitment to the hobby. India’s amateur astronomers conducted a 10-day workshop in telescope-making, The Hindu reported. They hope getting more telescopes in the hands of the public will foster more popular interest in the sciences.

Amateur radio enthusiast Bill Brown who has conducted more than 100 Near Space balloon flights into the stratosphere was featured in May issue of the Amateur Radio Relay League’s magazine, QST. A weather balloon, some helium, some electronics, and a few hundred dollars are all you need to conduct your own mission into Near Space. At altitudes approaching 30 kilometers the balloon floats above 99.99% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Mashable reporter Maria Gallucci spoke with high-altitude photographer John Flaig and other Near Space explorers about their hobby. Pictures and video show the landscape of the Earth below, the thin blue ribbon of the atmosphere along the horizon, and the blackness of space above. Of course, it isn’t just about pretty pictures. The Calgary Sun reported on a local school that sent radiation detectors into the stratosphere. The low cost and accessible technology make Near Space ballooning ideal hands-on projects to get kids interested in science and engineering.


Amateurs in Space

Nasa astronaut and International Space Station Commander Peggy Whitson holds a small storage locker built by high school students in the space agency's Hunch program. Credit: Nasa

Nasa astronaut and International Space Station Commander Peggy Whitson holds a small storage locker built by high school students in the space agency's Hunch program. Credit: Nasa

Industry Week reported that more teenagers will build equipment for the space program. It's thanks to a public-private partnership between two acronym-filled programs. Hunch (an acronym for High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware) enlists schools with vocational training programs. Students learn how to use modern machine tools to make supplies for the International Space Station. Once the kids can meet Nasa’s exacting standards, those supplies head into orbit. Smeef (formerly known as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation) has its own vocational program called Prime (another acronym for the Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education). The two organizations are joining forces to expand Hunch into hundreds of schools across the US.

Students at a Massachusetts vocational school are working on back-to-back space missions, the Sentinel & Enterprise reported. An experiment to study lactic acid production in bacteria recently returned from orbit. Another experiment - the school’s eighth - will launch into space this Summer. The students’ space research was made possible by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. More than 60,000 students across the US and Canada have taken part in SSEP programs that have sent dozens of experiments into space.

Exploring Earth

Citizen scientists analyze images like this to help scientist build a 40-year record of cyclone (aka hurricane, aka typhoon) intensities. Credit: Cyclone Center

Citizen scientists analyze images like this to help scientist build a 40-year record of cyclone (aka hurricane, aka typhoon) intensities. Credit: Cyclone Center

Noaa celebrated Citizen Science Day by describing projects people can support to help Earth Science research. The projects include an online crowdsourcing effort to analyze the intensity of hurricanes, the direct measurement of Earth’s geomagnetic field, and the reporting of rainfall to help local weather forecasters.

Weather-spotting has a centuries-long history of supporting science. Noaa's National Weather Service coordinates a 400,000-member network of volunteers who monitor extreme weather. With official weather stations tens or hundreds of miles apart, meteorologists never know exactly what is happening on the ground. Volunteers in the NWS' Skywarn program report below-the-radar weather which helps improve forecasts and warnings. This report from Texas TV station KXAN follows stormspotter Tricia Clarke as she watches the skies for signs of tornados over the Texas Hill Country.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology wants boat owners down under to help monitor weather. The long distances between weather stations is even worse at sea. described how boat and yacht owners can submit data from their personal weather stations to the BoM’s Weather Observation Website.

Exploring the Solar System

Several large meteors appeared over the United States recently. A fireball over San Diego, California, and another fireball over South Carolina each generated more than 400 reports to the American Meteor Society. The AMS uses these reports to calculate the meteoroid’s trajectory - both forward to the impact site and backward to its origins in the Solar System. Any meteorites from the California event fell into the Pacific Ocean, but fragments from the Carolina meteor may have fallen near Myrtle Beach - just in time for spring break.

Stardust@Home is one of the earliest examples of online crowdsourcing in space exploration. Nasa’s Stardust sample collection mission flew through a comet’s coma in 2004. During its journey to the comet and back it also collected samples of interstellar dust. There was just one problem. It would take decades for scientists to find the microscopic dust particles. So they asked the crowd for help. A new scientific paper reviews the project’s results and provides advice for future missions to collect stardust. (arXiv: 1704.01980)

The citizen science project Planet 9 enlisted nearly 22,000 volunteers to search for a planet in our own Solar System. They reviewed a series of images collected by ground-based observatories in Australia for signs of objects moving against the background of stars. The citizen scientists made 5,000,000 classifications within 3 days, exhausting the project’s data. Unfortunately nobody spotted a new planet. But they did find asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects in the outer Solar System. 

Exploring Deep Space

Several papers publish research that relied in part on crowdsourced citizen science projects. The Space Warps project displayed images of deep space from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. The public was asked to spot signs of gravitational lensing - the way a galaxy’s gravity bends space. More than 36,000 people took part in the project. Two new papers use their efforts to train machine learning algorithms to do the work. Both papers emphasize that the public role will continue even as software gets smarter. (arXiv: 1704.02744 and 1704.02322)

Scientists launched the Andromeda Project in 2012. It asked citizen scientists to review images of our galactic neighbor taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The project team wanted to map the star clusters to get a better understanding of how stars develop and evolve. Researchers recently used the Andromeda Project catalog to conduct their own study of star cluster populations. (arXiv: 1703.10312)

Another scientific preprint opens the door to future citizens science projects. Italian researchers developed an inexpensive Arduino-based cosmic ray detector. It cannot compete with large scale professional observatories. But the low cost and accessibility could enable outreach and citizen science projects. (arXiv: 1703.09843)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Adelaide at night... from space. Mid Murray Council lies to the northeast of Adelaide's city lights making it a convenient spot for astronomy tourists. Credit: Noaa / Nasa

Adelaide at night... from space. Mid Murray Council lies to the northeast of Adelaide's city lights making it a convenient spot for astronomy tourists. Credit: Noaa / Nasa

The only upside to urban light pollution is the boost rural economies get from astro-tourism. Amateur astronomers often plan their vacations around their hobby. That has led parks systems and communities to enact lighting policies that preserve the dark night skies. Efforts under way in Australia will secure a Dark Sky Preserve designation for the Mid-Murray Council. The ABC reports that the region would be unique among the IDA’s darkest preserves. Most are so remote that few people can visit them. The Mid-Murray Council, on the other hand, is only a two-hour drive from Adelaide.

CNBC covered Asia’s emerging space tourism companies. While Virgin Galactic plans to charge $250,000 per ticket for its yet-to-fly Space Ship Two, Japan’s PD Aerospace says its suborbital rocket plane flights may cost orders of magnitude less. Meanwhile, China’s Kuang-Chi Science plans to make a stratospheric balloon that will carry passengers on a gentler journey 30 kilometers above Earth’s surface. It joins America’s World View and Spain’s Inbloon in the belief that getting near space is good enough.

People in Massachusetts can borrow telescopes from their local libraries, the Telegram reported. The Aldrich Astronomical Society has donated more than 100 telescopes to libraries across the state. Its members modify small telescopes to make them more durable, conduct workshops, and help library staff maintain the telescopes.