Amateur Space Weekly - May 9

Kids head to this week’s Team America Rocketry Challenge, an asteroid-spotting camera, and riding the vomit comet with TJ Hooker. 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

A rocket lifts off from a Virginia pasture at last year's Team America Rocketry Challenge. Thousands of kids competed to enter this year's contest and a shot at representing the United States in world competition. Source: Team America Rocketry Challenge

The Team America Rocketry Challenge is just around the corner. 100 teams of teenagers from across the United States and the US Virgin Islands will descend on a Virginia farm field to launch rockets.

The kids have spent the winter building and testing their own rocket designs. When they get to the TARC, they must launch a raw egg nearly 800 feet into the air and return it to the ground safely. Tarc’s main objective is to get kids interested in studying science and math - and have fund doing it. But it is still a contest. More than $100,000 in prizes and scholarships are on the line. The grand champion team will get $25,000 in scholarships and will represent the United States in international competition.

Here is some of the coverage media have given their local rocketeers over the past week:

  • Lompoc, California (Lompoc Record): this is the first year in Tarc for students of Lompoc High School’s Space, Technology, and Robotic Systems Academy.
  • Ridgefield, Connecticut (Ridgefield Press): This team of home schooled teens is attending for the third time.
  • Forsyth, Georgia (Forsyth News): Almost entirely composed of ninth graders, the team spent their Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings practicing their launches.
  • Charlotte, North Carolina (Charlotte Observer): The Victory Christian Center School has sent teams to Tarc for the past six years.
  • Taylorsville, North Carolina (Taylorsville Times): East Alexander Middle School will send two teams to this year’s competition.
  • Rio Rancho, New Mexico (KRQE): The only team from New Mexico consists of two sets of siblings.
  • Spokane, Washington (Spokesman): Kids must combine both technology and entrepreneurship to cover travel expenses.
  • Bellevue, Washington (Seattle Times): Last year’s Tarc winners went on to win the International Rocketry Challenge to become the world’s rocketry champions. Now in high school, are helping other schools develop their own rocket teams.

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Amy Gibas is artist who uses high altitude balloons to create her murals. An MFA graduate student at Ohio University, Gibas takes inspiration from images her balloons capture in the stratosphere. The Athens news reported on the struggles Gibas went through to get her missions working

Exploring Earth

America's National Weather Service relies on hundreds of thousands of volunteers for its severe weather warnings. Why? Radar beams travel in a straight line from the weather station, but Earth's surface is curved. At the edge of its range, the radar cannot see anything happening below 5000 feet. Only people on the spot can provide the "ground truth" needed to issue accurate warnings of thunderstorms and tornadoes. 

The Skywarn program enlists the public to report that below-the-radar weather to local meteorologists. Every Spring it conducts training sessions to get people ready for the summer storm season. 

New York’s storm spotters talked about the satisfaction they get helping to keep their community safe. (Times Record-Herald) Massachusetts TV station WWLP reported that the public can provide more credible information with only a few hours of training.

Exploring the Solar System

A new camera may let amateurs watch Earth-grazing asteroids. A team of undergraduate and graduate students at Northern Arizona University developed a room temperature infrared camera. 

Tipsi is the purple cylinder at the bottom of Northern Arizona University's campus telescope. Credit: Northern Arizona University

Their professors want to track and measure the small asteroids that pass regularly between Earth and the Moon. Traditionally the job requires cooling a sensor with liquid nitrogen. The whole setup weighs so much that only the biggest telescopes can support these cameras. 

NAU’s new Thermal Infrared Planetary Sensing Imager (Tipsi) operates at room temperature and weighs less than two golf balls. The team spent $12,000 developing Tipsi. 

Does that make it out of reach for amateur astronomers? Not necessarily. A first prototype always costs a lot but over time those costs come down. Keep in mind that amateurs made their first detection of an exoplanet only five years after the professionals. Other amateurs have developed affordable spectroscopes for stellar observations. It’s only a matter of time before amateurs create a cheaper version of Tipsi and do things the pros never thought of.

Exploring Deep Space

Amateur astronomer Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn explained her astrophotography hobby to The Weather Network’s Scott Sutherland. “Research, determination, patience and practice,” she explained are the keys to success.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Zero G Corporation is a commercial provider of “vomit comet” flights. Its planes soar up and down like a roller coaster to create brief periods of microgravity. The company’s main customers are scientists and aerospace companies who want to test equipment before sending it into space. But Zero G also flies tourists who want to get the astronaut experience. A dozen visitors to Las Vegas can take a $10,000 microgravity flight with TJ Hooker actor William Shatner.