Amateur Space Weekly - May 1

Tampa makers’ spacecraft could go to the Moon, mapping Britain’s plastic tides, and an aurora named Steve. 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: Tampa makers could head to the Moon, teen rocketeers prepare for national finals, undergraduate rocket scientists prepare for international contest, Ireland’s CanSat champs head to Germany, and a toy anteater flies to the edge of space.
  • Amateurs in Space: University students take a zero-g ride for science, and high school students send their work into orbit.
  • Exploring Earth: Citizen scientists map the plastic tides of Britain, volunteer storm-spotters help US weather agency, and environmentalists spy on oil companies from space.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Canada’s aurora-spotters name new lights “Steve”, Poland organizes Mars mission simulation, and a DSLR or smartphone is all you need to help eclipse science
  • Exploring Deep Space: New galactic research based on citizen science
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Tourists will fly Virgin Galactic next year (they mean it this time).

Space Makers

Credit: Nasa

Nasa’s CubeQuest Challenge is a contest that tasks teams from across the United States to design a spacecraft that tests deep space technologies. The top ranked teams come from places you would expect: MIT, the University of California, and Cornell University. But the contest is not just for students. Anyone can register to compete - like Team Miles. This self-taught band of spacecraft makers got their start in a Tampa Bay, Florida, hacker space. I interviewed Team Miles lead Wes Faler last year. Since then they have made significant progress, finishing first in two out of three ground tournaments. The Tampa Bay Times featured Team Miles as they wait for Nasa to pick the teams that will send their spacecraft to the Moon… and beyond.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge will gather one hundred teams of teenage rocket-builders in Virginia this summer to see whose rockets are best. They will also have a shot at scholarships, prizes, and the chance to represent the US internationally. Media in California, Kansas, and New Mexico featured their local team of rocket scientists.

The Spaceport America Cup is a contest for undergraduate rocket scientists from around the world. The 110 teams from 11 countries must build high performance rockets that climb 10,000-30,000 feet above the New Mexican desert. India’s The Tribune reported that the PEC University of Technology will be the first Indian team to compete in the advanced category which requires reaching the 30,000 foot altitude target.

The Nasa Student Launch contest invites universities and secondary schools to compete in a year-long rocket building project. Teams must follow the same development process as the space agency’s rocket scientists by clearing a series of design reviews. Newsplex reported that Piedmont Virginia Community College is one of three community colleges competing in this year’s contest.

The European Space Agency organizes an annual CanSat Competition. Students at secondary schools within its member nations must design a model satellite the size of a soda can. The CanSat launches several hundred meters into the sky and must collect data during its descent. National tournaments held over the past two months have selected each country’s champion. Irish Tech News wrote about Ireland’s new champions from Dublin. They will travel to Germany this summer for the Europe-wide competition.

A student project carried a toy echidna to the edge of space, the ABC reported. Librarians in South Australia, with the help of local amateur radio enthusiasts, organized the project to get kids interested in reading about space exploration.

Amateurs in Space

Spaceflight Insider wrote about university research teams conducting zero-g science. The students took their projects onto Zero Gravity Corporation’s microgravity simulator. The refurbished Boeing 727 flies a roller coaster-like flight path to create periods of free fall that approximate conditions in outer space.

But college students aren’t the only ones doing things in zero-g. Reports last week include high school students whose projects are actually in outer space. The Ponte Vedra Recorder reported on a Florida high school whose students are studying the effect of microgravity on human heart muscles. Newsweek reported on a Texas high school whose students built replacement supplies for the International Space Station.

Exploring Earth

The Plastic Tide wants citizen scientists to map plastic waste on British beaches. Hosted on the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse, the project displays pictures of the beach taken by a drone. Volunteers must mark signs of plastic and other waste in the picture. Scientists hope the work will yield better measures of ocean pollution.

Throughout the spring America’s National Weather Service trains volunteers to report severe weather. Radars and weather stations are so far apart - often hundreds of miles - that meteorologists do not really know what is happening “beneath the radar”. Volunteers in the Skywarn program provide much-needed data that improve weather forecasts and warnings. “We rely heavily on spotters to tell us what is going on in other parts of our area of responsibility,” NWS Tucson meteorologist Emily French told the Sierra Vista Herald at a recent training session.

Environmental activists are using satellite images to catch oil spills the drilling companies do not report. Fast Company featured an alliance of community and environmental groups in Louisiana who compared data provided by oil companies to the US Coast Guard with images of actual oil slicks taken by orbiting satellites. They found that the oil companies consistently underreported the extent and frequency of oil spills from drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Exploring the Solar System

The Mars Society of Poland will conduct a simulated mission to the red planet this summer. A six-person crew will spend two weeks in a mock habitat module. They will test operational procedures while outside experts evaluate their group dynamics. Space Safety Magazine spoke with mission director Sebastian Hettrich about the project.

Canada’s amateur aurora-spotters helped discover a new kind of aurora, the European Space Agency announced. One night they saw a purple streak of light that was like no aurora they had ever seen before. So they did what Canadians do: They called it "Steve”. And then asked a physicist. He enlisted the European Space Agency's help to look at data from its Swarm mission. The satellites recorded a huge temperature build-up in the atmosphere surrounding the slow-moving stream of gas. The Swarm satellites also recorded many other examples of Steve that no professional scientist had seen before. It took a bunch of amateurs to spot it and then ask "what's up with Steve?"

Anyone with a DSLR or smartphone can help scientists study this year’s solar eclipse, Eureka Lab reported. Millions of people will stand beneath the shadow’s path as it travels across the United States. Most of them will have some kind of camera. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley want to crowdsource videos from those cameras to create Eclipse Megamovies. The 90 minute long compilations will let scientists study the solar corona.

Exploring Deep Space

More than 350,000 volunteers in the Galaxy Zoo project have created the world’s largest catalog of galaxy morphology (science talk for shapes). That lets scientists conduct new kinds of research they could never have done on their own. One new study looks at the relationship between the rate of star formation and the number of spiral arms in galaxies (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, DOI:10.1093/mnras/stx581). Another looks at how a galaxy’s neighborhood shuts off star formation (arXiv: 1704.06269)

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

SpaceShipTwo continues its unpowered flight tests. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson believes Virgin Galactic will start suborbital tourist flights in 2018, Spacedotcom reports. Of course, Branson has said that space tourism is a year away almost every year since he started the company. More than ten years later, and after an accident that cost the life of a test pilot, SpaceShipTwo remains in development.