Amateur Space Weekly - August 2

Southern California teens CubeSat ready for launch, a meteor spotted over Seattle, and European science teachers design a Mars mission. 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: SoCal teens' satellite ready for launch, Canadian undergrads discover dinosaur
  • Amateurs in Space: Citizen astronauts do airborne research, Massachusetts teens hope to program space robots
  • Exploring Earth: Volunteer weather spotters measure downpour, crowdsourcing earthquake Shake Maps
  • Exploring the Solar System: Meteor over Seattle, Australian amateur helps track a comet, the search for Planet Nine, and news from the citizens solar eclipse
  • Exploring Deep Space: Two million Radio Galaxy Zoo clicks, galactic rings from citizen science, amateurs help search for exomoons and exoplanets
  • Outreach, Tourism, and Other News: Citizen scientists' motivations studied, art in orbit, and a Mars-themed teacher summer camp in Greece

Space Makers

Southern California high school students are ready to send a satellite into orbit, the OC Register reported. The kids are part of the Irvine CubeSat program - an effort to encourage science and math education among local students. The program’s organizers hope to make satellite projects a regular part of the curriculum that gives kids the hands-on experience they need to make their studies relevant. An Indian rocket will carry Irvine01 into a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth later this year. If successful these kids will be the first American teenagers to build an operational satellite.

Canadian undergrads designing a Mars rover discovered a dinosaur, Live Science reported. Students on the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team hosted the Canadian International Rover Challenge which brought teams of college students around the world to put their rover designs to the test. But as the student organizers scouted the site of their contest, they spotted a strange rock later deemed to be the fossilized remains of a duck-billed dinosaur.

Amateurs in Space

Citizen astronauts trained to conduct high-altitude research on suborbital rocket planes. Credit: Project Possum

Citizen astronauts studied high altitude clouds. Project Possum trains citizen astronauts to conduct scientific research on suborbital rocket planes. The company it had pinned its hopes on XCor Aerospace ran out of money earlier this year, but Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic say they will be ready for commercial suborbital flights Real Soon Now. In the meantime, Project Possum’s team used a good old fashioned airplane to study noctilucent clouds above the Canadian Arctic.

Kids at a Massachusetts summer camp are learning to code Twenty-First Century style. The Enterprise News wrote about the kids’ participation in this year’s Zero Robotics Middle School Tournament. After a series of practice and elimination rounds, they have a shot at programming robots on the International Space Station.

Exploring Earth

Colorado meteorologist Chris Spears used amateur weather data to measure an intense thunderstorm. The data came from volunteers participating in the Cocorahs project which collects daily precipitation measurements from thousands of citizen scientists across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.

More than 1,000 people across Hawaii reported the effects of an earthquake - the largest to hit the islands in years - to the USGS’ Did You Feel It crowdsourcing service. The data let geologists map felt intensity which can be very different from the observations produced by seismographs. Maui Now reprinted an article from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory that explains how scientists use crowdsource earthquake Shake Maps.

Exploring the Solar System

The American Meteor Society received more than 700 reports of a fireball over western Washington state. The site crowdsources these reports to trace the meteors path forward to potential impact sites and backwards to their sources in the Solar System, in this case it passed from the eastern side of Seattle to disappear north of the city. (The video shows the fireball just above where the streetlights converge.)

An amateur astronomer in Australia helped professionals track a new comet. The Carnegie Institute for Science described how astrophysicists working on the ASAS-SN supernova search found signs of a comet in their nightly observations. The only chance they had of mapping its path would be if someone could make a second observation that same day. Australian amateur Joseph Brimacombe answered the call, allowing the team to observe the comet over the next three days

IEEE Spectrum reviewed the global search for Planet Nine. The article focuses on the professional efforts but also mentions Backyard Worlds’ 40,000 citizen scientists.

Solar Eclipse 2017

Undergraduates will help study the potential for life on Mars. They are part of a Nasa-backed project that will send balloon-borne instruments into the stratosphere during this month’s solar eclipse. Researchers at Nasa’s Ames jumped on the opportunity to hitch a ride to the region of Earth with conditions similar to Mars. A card holding dried bacteria will ride along with the scientific instruments to be exposed to the harsh radiation and near-vacuum at the edge of space.

In other eclipse news:

  • A team of professional and amateur scientists will study the eclipse using stratospheric balloons. (Mic)
  • Nebraska’s Homestead National Monument will host Nasa, citizen scientists, and the public during the solar eclipse. (Beatrice Daily Sun)

Exploring Deep Space

The citizen science project Radio Galaxy Zoo is approaching its 2,000,000th classification. Participants are helping scientists study the massive black holes lying in the center of galaxies. They match images generated by two very different datasets - arrays of telescopes collect radio frequency data in the deserts of Australia and the United States while the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer collects infrared data from space. The scientists will use the citizen scientists’ collective work to learn more about how these black holes formed. Even though Radio Galaxy Zoo is reaching this milestone, it the work is only 71% complete. There’s still time to make a difference.

The original GalaxyZoo project is still generating new research. The upcoming papers explore galactic rings - rare structures that form in barred spiral galaxies - using examples found in the crowdsourced citizen science data.

Have scientists found a moon around another planet? Media headlines say yes, but the scientists say “mmmmaybe?” The Hunting for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) analyzes data from Nasa’s exoplanet telescope. Just as Kepler works by measuring the dip in starlight as a planet passes between its star and Earth, HEK tries to find signs of moons in those dips. Interesting, sure but what do amateurs have to do with it. The odds of finding an exomoon are so low that principal investigator David Kipping could not get a research grant. So he turned to the public and crowdfunded the cost of HEK’s mini-supercomputer. Allan Schmitt, a citizen scientist participating in the Planet Hunters project, sent the HEK team so many candidates that they asked him to join their project. He is a co-author on their research.

The Planet Hunters project itself was in the news last week. The New Orleans Fox affiliate interviewed a local astrophysicist Tabetha Boyajian about the crowdsourced search for exoplanets as well as her crowdfunded investigation into one particularly strange star.

Outreach, Tourism, and Other News

Researchers studied the motivations driving citizen science, Phys Org reported. As more scientists adopt crowdsourcing to collect or analyze data, they are increasingly competing with each other for participants. Scientists at Britain’s Plymouth University conducted a study to understand why citizen scientists joined these projects and what kept their long-term participation. They found that the desire to learn brought citizen scientists into projects. Their longer-term participation, however, owed more to social interaction with other participants and the sense of escape from day-to-day life.

An artist whose work adorns satellites in orbit spoke with the San Jose Mercury News. Forest Stearns directs the artist-in-residence program at Planet Labs, a company deploying hundreds of Earth observation satellites. Stearns describes how he landed the job and what goes into painting a satellite,

European STEM teachers developed their own mission to Mars. The teachers were attending a professional development program in Greece called the Mars Mission Summer School. Sponsored by the European Community, the program introduced the teacher to new techniques in science learning. What made this program different from traditional workshops is that it used the design of a Mars exploration mission to reinforce the training.