Amateur Space Weekly - July 5

Last week Indian undergrads won a CanSat competition in Texas, Public Labs began crowdfunding its community satellite kit, and a Japanese amateur explained his passion for hunting comets.

My apologies to everyone for going dark over the past month. Now that my migration to Albuquerque is complete, I will get back to a regular schedule. Look for more interview-based articles later this month.

  • Space Makers: Indian undergrads win CanSat contest in Texas, Seattle pre-teens will study eclipse with Nasa, West Virginia undergrads win Mars ice mining contest
  • Amateurs in Space: 500,000 kids study space tomatoes every year, more teen science projects will head into space.
  • Exploring Earth: Crowdfunding community satellites, volunteer weather-spotting helps meteorologists.
  • Exploring the Solar System: Japanese amateur comet-hunter interviewed, solar eclipse outreach programs, and an asteroid named after a Canadian amateur astronomer
  • Exploring Deep Space: Galaxy Zoo turns ten, teens can publish variable star research, and LSST alerts will help amateur astronomers.
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Astronomy educators visit observatories in Chile

Space Makers

Nasa’s Langley Research Center conducted the Mars Ice Challenge. Teams of undergraduates from seven universities spent the past year developing systems that could mine ice from simulated Martian soil. This is an approach called in-situ resource utilization that the space agency (and others) believe will make direct exploration of the Solar System possible. Teams had to work within the mass, volume, and power constraints of an actual Mars mission. That meant no heavy machinery, no diesel engines, and no explosives. The rules are “based in reality to what NASA wants,” National Institute of Aerospace education director Shelley Spears said. “When we give those challenges to students, they’re able to start solving them in their unique way.” West Virginia University took the grand prize. The NIA will announce next year’s rules later this summer.

Indian undergrads won the 2017 CanSat Competition, the Times of India reported. CanSats approximate many of the systems of a satellite in the same way that model rockets approximate the systems of a modern launch vehicle. Outreach programs use CanSats to foster science and engineering education through hands-on learning. The American Astronautical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics organize an annual CanSat Competition for undergraduate engineering students. Teams must design their CanSats to meet specific criteria - and then those CanSats must survive a launch on a high-performance rocket. Although based in the United States, universities from Turkey, Mexico, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, Italy, and Iran sent teams to the Texas launch site. Indian teams secured the top two spots with an American team placing third. Turkish and Canadian students rounded out the top five.

Pre-teens Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung are planning their latest mission into the stratosphere. The Near Space explorers made headlines in 2015 when they sent their R2D2 80,000 feet above their home in Washington. Later this year they will join scientists and amateur astronomers in a project to study the total eclipse. The young scientists are asking the Internet to help pick which LEGO figurine should represent the mission. Their online poll lets you choose between Meridah (from the movie Brave), Amelia Earheart, and Hermione Granger (from the Harry Potter novels). In a late June blog post the sisters announced that their stratospheric balloon may be part of a Nasa microbiology project.

Amateurs in Space

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program held its national conference last week. Founded in 2011, the SSEP lets middle school and high school students send scientific research projects to the International Space Station. The program models itself after the same process that professional scientists follow. Teams of students within a school, school district, or community develop their own research proposals. A community review panel selects three of these proposals. Those three teams travel to Washington DC to present their proposals to a national review panel. That panel of scientists and educators selects a research project from each community that gets to go into orbit. More than sixty-one thousand students in the United States and Canada have participated. Mission 10 (Casper)’s eleven experiments reached the space station in early June. The twenty-one experiments on Mission 11 (America) will ride a rocket into space in August. The application window for Mission 12 (Mercury) closed last month. The SSEP will keep sending student research into space - the only question is what they name lucky number 13.

Tomatosphere is a zero-g project that boosts K-12 science education. Since its founding by the Canadian Space Agency in 2000, Tomatosphere has sent tomato seeds into orbit where they are exposed to microgravity and radiation. Schools across Canada and the United States plant these seeds side by side with “normal” seeds to study the effects of space travel. Tomatosphere was the featured outreach program in the latest issue of Upward, a publication of the organization that manages the US National Laboratory in space. The latest batch of seeds rode a SpaceX Dragon to the ISS in early June. Sensors will log environmental conditions, giving students even more data for their analysis.

Exploring Earth

A digital camera and a bunch of helium-filled balloons are all you need to map your local community from the sky. Public Labs' balloon mapping kits make it even easier. Source: Public Labs

A digital camera and a bunch of helium-filled balloons are all you need to map your local community from the sky. Public Labs' balloon mapping kits make it even easier. Source: Public Labs

Public Labs is crowdfunding its next generation balloon mapping kit. Aerial photography used to be so difficult and expensive that only governments and corporations could afford it. Even with the advent of drone photography the cost can be out of reach of community organizations. Public Lab is a non-profit community dedicated to democratizing science. One way they have done this is by creating a balloon mapping kit. Schools, community groups, and environmental advocates can suspending an inexpensive digital camera beneath a helium-filled weather balloon to collect images of otherwise inaccessible areas. People used these “community satellites” to map the extent of damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The new kit will be “more affordable, accessible, and adaptable so that individuals and communities can respond quickly to the issues they see in their environment.”

Thunderstorms sweep across the United States every summer. Satellite images and doppler weather radar make it look like the professional meteorologists at Noaa’s National Weather Service know exactly what’s happening when a storm strikes. But they don’t. Weather stations are separated by tens, even hundreds, of kilometers. Radar beams travel in straight lines which rise into the sky due to Earth’s curvature. That means the intensely localized effects of a storm are not visible to meteorologists. That’s where networks of amateur weather watchers make a difference.

Utah Public Radio reported on the volunteer members of Cocorahs. People across the United States and Canada purchase standardized rain gauges and submit daily rainfall reports. This gives meteorologists a finer-grained map of how and where rain falls than they can get from their sophisticated technology. One NWS meteorologist told UPR that the simple reports from Cocorahs volunteers are “infinitely valuable” to the weather agency’s work.

The National Weather Service relies on volunteers with the Skywarn network during the most extreme storms. These specially-trained spotters monitor storms for signs of tornadoes, severe winds, and flooding that happen under the radar. After a recent thunderstorm, The Greenfield Recorder reported, amateur-reported winds near Boston reached as high as 60 miles-per-hour when the official weather station only experienced 46 mile-per-hour winds.

Exploring the Solar System

Shigeki Murukami is a Japanese amateur astronomer who hunts for comets. Unlike many amateurs who use sophisticated sensors to make their observations, Murukami uses his own two eyes. (Well, technically he only uses one eye to look through the telescope’s eyepiece) Visual astronomy requires a deep familiarity with sky, but Murukami is credited with the discovery of two comets: C/2002 E2 (Snyder-Murakami) and C/2010 V1 (Ikeya-Murakami). Slovakian amateur astronomer Stefan Kürti posted an extended interview in which Murakami discusses his life-long passion for comet hunting.

A total solar eclipse will travel across the United States in August. The media are running more stories about outreach and research programs as the date approaches. Spacedotcom reported on eclipse education at Astronomy Without Borders. Sponsored by Google, the program will distribute more than 100,000 eclipse glasses to underserved communities. AWB founder Mike Simmons expressed his hope that “isolated and traditionally underserved communities in particular will take advantage of the program, bringing STEM into classrooms that might have limited resources.” Building on Eclipse Education Program will provide school teachers with lesson plans and access to a network of expert advisers.

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute is a non-profit that fosters astronomy education and research. Based out of a retired Nasa radio telescope site in western North Carolina, Pari hosts astronomers of all ages. The Citizen-Times spoke with Pari founder Don Cline about Pari’s mission and the outreach programs it plans for the solar eclipse.

A Canadian science educator was “completely floored” when colleagues named an asteroid after her. The Atlantic explains how the International Astronomical Union manages the naming process. Discovered by a group of comet-spotting amateur astronomers, the asteroid orbits the Sun in the region between Mars and Jupiter.

Exploring Deep Space

Galaxy Zoo first began crowdsourcing astronomy research ten years ago this month. In celebration of this milestone, the project’s organizers are holding a conference next weekend. Sessions will explore the latest citizen science discoveries and map the future for crowdsourced science. All sessions from the Galaxy Zoo science team meeting will be live streamed.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers is an international (despite the name) group of professional and amateur astronomers who study the way stars change. For more than one hundred years members have submitted their observations to the AAVSO. Its database now contains more than 28 million observations dating back to the mid 19th Century. The American Astronomical Society announced that the AAVSO wants more high school students to use its database. Not only can they conduct original research, but they can also see their work published in the Journal of the AAVSO.

A world-class observatory will help amateur astronomers. The Seattle Times wrote about the the contribution made by local researchers to a next generation astronomical observatory. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will take high resolution pictures of the sky every week. In the process it will generate more than 20 terabytes of data every day - more than any one person can review. The researchers developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that will spot asteroids. Software like this will let the LSST automatically issue alerts of asteroids, supernovae and other sudden changes in the night sky. Those alerts will be fully public and will let amateur astronomers conduct the follow-up observations relied on by the professionals.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors is an astronomy outreach program run by the organizations supporting America’s observatories in Chile. Its goal is to enhance the skills of people educating kids in primary or secondary school. The participants could be science teachers, the staff at a planetarium, or an amateur astronomer who conducts outreach. Those chosen get a free trip to Chile where they visit the American observatories on the high, dry plateau of the Atacama desert. The Alma Observatory announced that the latest ACEA cadre completed their week in Chile. “It’s important to keep the public informed and excited about basic research through astronomy,” said Tim Spuck, principal investigator for the ACEAP. "We want them to take away as much as they can experience during the program and share it with the world.” Astronomy Magazine editor Alison Kiesman reported on the Ambassadors’ experiences.