Amateur Space Weekly - July 19

An earthquake swarm in Oklahoma, spotting the shadow of an asteroid’s moon, and a brown dwarf citizen science discovery are some of the week’s headlines about people taking space exploration in their own hands.

  • Space Makers: Women no longer hidden figures in space, West Virginia kid coders to control space robot, weather scrubs teen launch in Alaska, Virginia’s rocket “lunatics”.
  • Exploring Earth: 2000 people report earthquake swarm in Oklahoma.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Public processes Nasa’s Jupiter pics, amateur asteroid hunter hangs up his spurs, amateurs spot shadow of asteroid’s moon, fireball over the Carolinas,  solar eclipse headlines, and amateur research of Jupiter.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Citizen science discovers brown dwarf stars, supernova explosions, and exoplanets; professional-amateur team uses spectroscopy to study Wolf-Rayet star.

Space Makers

Virginia teens learned that women are not hidden figures in space anymore, the Loudon Times reported. They heard from women scientists and astronauts who described their careers. They also heard from an Idaho high school student who is building a CubeSat that Nasa will launch into orbit later this year.

West Virginian middle school students are learning how to control space robots, the Preston County News & Journal reports. They are contestants in the annual Zero Robotics Middle School Tournament. Students around the world learn how to control SPHERES, a set of robots on the International Space Station. As they advance through the elimination rounds they get closer and closer to their goal: uploading code to robots in space.

Weather scrubbed launches at an Alaskan rocketry camp, the Mat-Su Vally Frontiersman reported. Students with the University of Alaska Anchorage conducted the camp to encourage local kids’ interest in the sciences. They learned how to design and build their own rockets from scratch. They also learned that Mother Nature is more powerful than professional or amateur rocket scientists.

The Roanoke Times reported from an amateur rocketry launch event. The participants shared their excitement and passion. The self-professed rocket “lunatics” even showed how launch failures teach lessons.

Exploring Earth

A “mini swarm” of earthquakes struck rural Oklahoma, TulsaWorld reports. More than 2,100 people reported feeling the tremors to the USGS’ Did You Feel It crowdsourcing service. The service’s seismologists use public reports to map an earthquake’s effects in more detail than their widely scattered instruments provide.

Exploring the Solar System

Within hours of Juno's swing by Jupiter's Great Red Spot amateurs were processing Nasa's data to make amazing pictures like this. Credit: Nasa / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Jason Major

Nasa’s Juno spacecraft completed its latest swing past Jupiter. And amateurs jumped at the chance to turn the spacecraft’s data into their own images. Principal investigator Scott Bolton told Newsweek that amateurs are “usually faster” at processing the images than the professional scientists. Bolton later explained in a Nasa statement why the pros are not rushing things: “It will take us some time to analyze all the data… to shed some new light on the past, present and future of the Great Red Spot.” Nasa encourages the public, quoting Rhode Island graphic designer Jason Major who says it is “thrilling to take the raw images and turn them into something that people can appreciate.”

An amateur astronomer will set aside his search for asteroids to focus on education, the Nogales International reports. Michael Schwartz is one of the few amateur astronomers to land a Nasa contract monitoring the near-Earth asteroids that may threaten our planet. Check the article to learn why Schwartz plans to focus on encouraging teens to study science.

A pro-am team may have found a moon orbiting an asteroid, Sky & Telescope reported. Astronomers use a process called occultation to study asteroids in more detail than they can through giant telescopes. Teams of observers, including amateurs, monitor a star as the asteroid passes between it and Earth. By measuring the time it takes for the asteroid’s shadow to pass, the team can reconstruct the asteroid’s shape and other properties. Members of the International Occultation Timing Association believe they spotted an asteroidal moon. Stay tuned because they will have four chances next year to confirm the discovery.

More than fifty people reported seeing a fireball in the skies over North Carolina last Thursday. The reports let the American Meteor Society triangulate the meteors path as it broke up over Asheville.

We are seeing more solar eclipse news as August’s event approaches. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the eclipse happens on the first day of class at many Kansas universities. Classes won’ t be cancelled, but students who skip out to see the eclipse won’t be penalized. Oregon’s attorney general has warned hotels that they face prosecution if they gouge their guests. The Statesman Journal reports that some hotels have cancelled existing reservations in order to raise rates. The Pittsburgh Tribune reported on local undergraduates developing a balloon mission to study the solar eclipse’s effects on the stratosphere.

A German school teacher describes how his students use a robotic telescope to search for asteroids.

(arXiv: 1707.03356 and 1707.03343) Amateur images have been used to track weather inused to track weather in Jupiter’s southern and northern hemispheres. The study of the southern hemisphere is the most detailed look to date at the Southern Equatorial Band Revival. This periodic disturbance in Jupiter’s atmosphere spawns storm after storm - each one bigger than entire planets. The research was only possible because hundreds of amateur astronomers around the world submit their pictures of the planets to a scientific archive.

Exploring Deep Space

To give a sense of scale this artist's interpretation compares the Sun, what we once thought was the smallest kind of star, a brown dwarf star, and Jupiter. Brown dwarfs emit most of their light in the infrared, making them hard to spot. Credit: Nasa / GSFC

Planet-hunting citizen scientists found something - and it wasn’t planets. Some scientists believe there may be a ninth planet beyond Neptune’s orbit. No, not Pluto. The planet, if it exists, is so far from the Sun that any light it reflects is very faint against the Milky Way’s backdrop. Not many professional observatories have time to search for this needle in a haystack, but some might have caught it by accident. Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center sponsors Backyard Worlds to enlist citizen scientists in the search. They review images from the NeoWise space telescope. Even though the participants haven’t seen a planet yet, they have seen a brown dwarf star. A little bit bigger than Jupiter, this star burns so faintly that most of its light radiates as heat. The amateur discovery of WISEA J110125.95+540052.8 (whata name!) was the first of what is now 117 brown dwarf discoveries from Backyard Worlds. "We realized we could do a much better job identifying Planet Nine if we opened the search to the public," Nasa astrophysicist Marc Kuchner, an said in the release. "Along the way, we're hoping to find thousands of interesting brown dwarfs."

(arXiv: 1707.03390) New research used a combination of space telescopes, ground-based observatories, and amateur spectroscopy to study the colliding stellar winds in a binary star system. The scientists were studying a supergiant star in what may be the final stages before a supenova. This Wolf-Rayet star generates intense stellar winds that interact with its binary companion. The research relied on Brite, a constellation of small space telescopes, as well as professional observatories in Chile and South Africa to gather spectrocopic data on the star. The astronomers also turned to a network of amateur astronomers who made their own spectroscopic observations - half of the ground-based observations used in the research. “The advent of affordable spectrographs available for small telescopes has allowed for a new era in massive star research,” the researchers say in their paper adding later on that they were “grateful to the amateur astronomers of the SASER team, who invested personal time and a contagious enthusiasm for this project.”

(arXiv: 1707.05223) The Supernova Hunters crowdsourcing project has shown how citizen science and machine learning work better together in a global supernova hunt. The Pan-STARRS observatory will generate terabytes of data every day - more than any group of people can analyze themselves. Scientists know they must rely on software to process and analyze the data. But the Universe is messy and fuzzy and noisy - something software struggles to process. People are much better at that kind of thing which is why crowdsourced projects like Galaxy Zoo have been so successful. But even citizen science can’t handle the flood of data soon to arrive. Supernova Hunters hopes to combine citizen science and machine learning. As citizen scientists review samples of data, their findings teach the algorithms how to do a better job. As the algorithms improve, they provide better data for the citizen scientists to review.

Gaming site Alphr looked at the way massively multiplayer online game EVE Online lets its gamers mining archive of a European space telescope for exoplanets.