Amateur Space Weekly - April 24

Native American undergrads win Nasa Swarmathon, crowdsourcing relief in South Sudan, and an amateur astronomer helps discover an Earth-like world 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: Native American undergrads win Nasa Swarmathon, teen rocketeers.
  • Amateurs in Space: Michigan kids do space-based heart research, New York teen's DNA science reaches space station, teen makers send gear into space for Nasa.
  • Exploring Earth: A new Google Earth, and mapping food insecurity in South Sudan.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Australian amateur helps discover exoplanet, and citizen scientists discover new stars and new worlds.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Teaching the visually impaired to study astrophysics.

Space Makers

Swarmathon competitors had to program a dozen robots like this one to collect "samples". Future exploration missions may use many small rovers rather than one big rover. Credit: Nasa/ KSC

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute won a Nasa contest to program robotic swarms. Undergraduate students at America’s minority-serving universities and community colleges compete in the annual Swarmathon by programming robots to collect objects much like ants collecting food. More than 600 students from 40 colleges and 30 high schools competed in this year’s Swarmathon at the Kennedy Space Center.

Hundreds of kids will gather at a Virginia farm this summer to launch rockets in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The kids spent months designing, building, launching, and refining their rockets. Now they get a chance to earn prizes and scholarships for their work. The Watertown Daily Times met with a local team of New York rocketeers. They have performed well in previous Tarc competitions and got a near-perfect score during the qualifiers. The Shelburne News featured Vermont middle school students returning for their second year of sport rocketry

Amateurs in Space

The picture above shows Nasa astronaut and current commander of the International Space Station Peggy Whitson holding a piece of space station hardware built by high school students. Credit: Nasa


A network of high schools across the United States are building hardware for Nasa's astronaut program. Fourteen years ago engineers at Nasa's Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center started working with local high schools to enhance their vocational education programs. The kids learn how to use modern machine tools while making hardware that meets the space agency's strict standards. The Hunch program now has 117 high schools in its network and plans to add hundreds more. Shop class. It's not just birdhouses any more.

Orion’s Quest lets students across the United States take part in real research projects… in space. One project explores the effect of microgravity on human heart cells. Scientists from Stanford University and Ohio State University sent heart cells to the International Space Station. Kids get to analyze videos of heart cells from these space-based experiments as well as from control experiments on the ground. They get hands-on experience with a real science experiment - and their analysis might get included in the scientists’ research. MLive reported on a Michigan school joining in Orion’s Quest space research. Students at Bullock Creek High School will take part in the heart cell research

A New York high school student’s DNA research arrived at the International Space Station last week. Sixteen year old Julian Rubinfien won the 2016 Genes in Space competition with his proposal to study the genetic aspects of aging. Telomeres protect chromosomes but they shorten as we age. But an astronaut's telomeres grew during a year in space. Rubinfien will study ways to use telomere measurements to evaluate astronaut health.

Exploring Earth

You can explore Earth in more detail than ever before with Google Earth. Credit: Google

In advance of Earth Day, Google announced a new and improved version of Google Earth. Among its features:

  • Voyager - interactive guided tours of our planet’s geology and cultures
  • I’m Feeling Lucky - Featured descriptions of more than 20,000 places 
  • 3D Views - Swoop around any place on Earth in your browser or in VR

Satellite reconnaissance company Digital Globe issued a press release about its involvement in the new Google Earth. Digital Globe high resolution satellite imagery forms the basis of the 3D capabilities as well as many of the Voyager tours.

Digital Globe also described ways citizen scientists can use its satellite imagery to map food insecurity in South Sudan. Civil War has disrupted life in this African nation, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing from their homes. Anyone can log into the Tomnod crowdsourcing service to review images of South Sudan and map signs of destruction. Non-governmental organizations like the Famine Early Warning System Network will use this data to get assistance to the places that need it the most.

Exploring Deep Space

An artist's concept of an "Earth-like" planet orbiting the star LHS1140. With professional observatories covered in clouds, an amateur astronomer in Australia provided crucial observations. Scientists may have had to wait another year before making their discovery. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

An amateur astronomer in Australia helped discover the closest Earth-like planet. Thiam-Guan Tan is a retired engineer who spends his evenings scanning the skies for supernovae and searching for exoplanets. His observatory, Tan explained to The Australian, is “basic­ally a plywood box around an off-the-shelf telescope.” A global team of scientists led by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics coordinated observations of the star LHS1140. They were looking for transits, the brief dips in starlight that happens when a planet passes between the star and observers on Earth. The team spent two years coordinating observations, but weather kept foiling their attempts to observe a full transit. “That night, the Centre for Astrophysics had lined up five other telescopes across Australia and Hawaii to observe but they were all clouded out,” Tan explained to The West. The scientists posted a call for help to amateur astronomers in Western Australia. Tan picked it up and made the crucial observations. "This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade," said lead author Jason Dittmann in the CfA’s press release. "Future observations might enable us to detect the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planet for the first time. We plan to search for water, and ultimately molecular oxygen." You can read about the discovery in Nature (paywall doi: 10.1038/nature22055) or the preprint (free arXiv: 1704.05556)

Earlier this month citizen scientists discovered a star system with four Earth-like planets. The University of California Santa Clara posted a behind-the-scenes story about this citizen science-powered exoplanet discovery. Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope monitors stars for the faint signs of planets passing in front of them. These mini-eclipses, called transits, briefly dim the light from the star. Repeated observations lets the scientists understand the planets’ physical properties. But there’s a catch. Kepler generates so much data that the scientists must rely on computers to spot potential planets. The computers aren’t perfect which leaves room for the citizen scientists at Exoplanet Explorers to fill in the gaps. The project got a big boost from the British Broadcasting Company and Australian Broadcasting Company which got more than 10,000 people to chip in. "It would have taken our small team months to wade through all this data,” said UCSC astronomer Ian Crossfield.

The citizen scientists at Backyard Worlds discovered five stars. The project hopes to find worlds orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Animated clips from infrared and optical telescopes let people spot small dots of light moving across the screen. The dots could be asteroids or dwarf planets in the outer solar system. They could even be stars moving through the galactic neighborhood. In this case the citizen scientists discovered L-dwarf stars so cool and faint that they emit little visible light.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Visually impaired astrophysicists conducted an outreach event at a school for blind and visually impaired teens. They taught the students about astronomy and explained how vision is not a requirement for good science.