Amateur Space Weekly - March 14

Every week I recap headlines from the world of amateur space exploration. From students sending research to the International Space Station to retirees searching for planets orbiting other stars, space exploration belongs to more than just the astronauts.

TL;DR? Jump to:

  • Featured News: Citizen scientists report aurorae to improve space weather forecasts; Solar eclipse brings public into the streets and into the air.
  • Space Makers: Students collect data from space and the edge of space; A satellite built by elementary school students is in orbit.
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Psychologist trains for zero-g rocketplane flight; Virginia students prepare meals for astronauts.
  • Exploring Earth: Weather spotters help meteorologists make better forecasts; Citizen scientists map damage from typhoon in Fiji.
  • Exploring the Solar System: CosmoQuest's $11.5 million Nasa grant will improve citizen science and education programs; Recon's 60 communities will help explore the edge of the Solar System; Meteorite hunting in Florida.
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateurs discover supernova and exoplanet; Educators to fly with Nasa; Citizen science project will search for gravitational waves

Featured News

Space Makers

Ardusat is a space education company that lets secondary school students get hands-on experience with space technology. It has satellites orbiting Earth that students can program to collect data about the planet’s surface as well as conditions in space. Siskiyou Daily wrote about a California high school whose students are collecting data from space. Ardusat also distributes satellite kits that lets students use the same sensors to measure their local environment. Check out this interview and story from South by Southwest Interactive conference where Ardusat Chief Technology Officer Kevin Cocco explains the difference Ardusat makes: 

A satellite designed and built by elementary school students is ready for release from the International Space Station, CBS News reported. Students at Virginia’s St. Thomas More Academy have spent the past several years testing their Cubesat for the extreme conditions of space. Now it’s just a matter of finding time in the astronauts’ busy schedules to drop the satellite in its own orbit. With a new crew on its way, the students have several more weeks to wait.

Every year the sixth graders at Northland Preparatory Academy send their science projects to the edge of space. The students in Flagstaff, Arizona, spend the school year learning how to design, build, and fly a high altitude balloon into the stratosphere. At an altitude of 100,000 feet the balloon-borne experiments float above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere. Cameras capture Earth’s horizon - a thin blue ribbon - beneath the inky blackness of outer space. “You see this awe and wonder in their face and their eyes, and their mouths are hanging open, because they see the blackness of space and they see our planet there,” science teacher Kaci Heins told KNAU. Check out this video of the 2016 flight:

Amateurs in Zero-G

High schools United with Nasa to Create Hardware is part of the space agency’s efforts to promote next-generation manufacturing in the United States. Schools with modern vocational education programs use computerized milling machines and 3D printers to build replacement parts for the International Space Station. As the students skills improve, they get the chance to take on more ambitious projects. The Milford Daily News wrote about a Massachussett high school’s partnership with Nasa. The students at Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School have designed a way to make molds for spare parts in the space station’s zero-gravity conditions. They are also working on a zero-gravity scale that will let astronauts measure the mass of objects.

The University of Miami wrote about alumna Ellisa Mallis who plans to fly on a suborbital rocketplane. Mallis has followed an intense training program to prepare for her journey into space on an XCor Lynx.

Exploring Earth

Cocorahs is a 57,000 member citizen science network in the United States, Canada, and the Bahamas that measures rain and snow fall every day with low-cost rain gauges. The low-tech approach contrasts with the high-tech sensors professional meteorologists use. But that has a strength of its own. The pros cannot afford dense sensor networks - their weather stations are often separated by tens or hundreds of miles. Weather happens on a much more local scale. A concentrated downpour can leave one neighborhood flooded while another only sees sunshine. Cocorahs provides a high-resolution snapshot of precipitation levels. Meteorologists use the data to enhance their forecasts and urban planners use them to address flood risks. March is Cocorahs’ prime recruiting season and media have been reporting on what the network means to the local communities in Iowa (KMA, Iowa Public Radio) and North Carolina (WWAY, WNCT)

Storm-spotting is another way the public helps meteorologists fill in the gaps. The National Weather Service’s Skywarn program relies on 900,000 volunteers to report severe weather conditions that radar systems cannot see. But extreme weather is dangerous so before anyone can join the network they must attend a training session like workshops held last week in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (Huron Daily Tribune) and Virginia (WDBJ).

After severe weather hits, emergency planners need to know the extent of damage as soon as possible. When the severe weather is a hurricane that devastates entire regions, any delays become life-and-death issues. The crowdsourcing service Tomnod enlists the worldwide public’s help to map damage in images from DigitalGlobe’s satellite network. Tomnod’s volunteers mapped the tropical cyclone Winston's destruction across more than 5,400 square kilometers of Fiji.

Exploring the Solar System

CosmoQuest released details of its $11.5 million Nasa education grant. The money will let CosmoQuest expand its crowdsourced citizen science projects. The existing projects lets anybody in the world map craters and other features on the Moon, Mercury, Mars, and Vesta. Future projects will add Earth to the planetary mix and expand into the search for dark energy. Some of the money will fund education activities at partner institutions. Youngstown University and the Lawrence Hall of Science will develop planetarium presentations. McREL International, the Planetary Science Institute, the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, and CosmoQuest’s parent the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will create professional development programs for secondary school teachers.

The Recon's communities form a virtual observatory that can explore small objects at the farthest ends of the Solar System. Credit: Recon

The Research and Education Collaborative Education Network (Recon) consists of 60 communities in the American West stretching from the Canadian to the Mexican border. Professional scientists donated telescopes, cameras, and other technologies to schools in these communities to let teachers, students, and amateur astronomers help explore the Solar System beyond Neptune’s orbit. [For more details, read my interview with Recon project scientists Marc Buie and John Keller.] Last month Buie and Keller published their first paper introducing the project to the planetary science community (The Astronomical Journal open-access DOI: 10.3847/0004-6256/151/3/73). 

The New York Times wrote about the amateur search for meteorites in Florida. A small chunk of an asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere in January. Public reports of the fireball collected by the American Meteor Society let the amateurs map a search region in the central Florida swampland where meteorites might have landed. After a week of searching the team found half a dozen meteorites (only the sixth time meteorites have ever been found in Florida). 

Exploring Deep Space

An amateur astronomer discovered a supernova last month, El Nuevo Dia reported. Puerto Rican engineer Isaac Cruz Cortez, who lives in Ohio, spotted the stellar explosion from his backyard observatory. The IAU’s Transient Name Server is the central clearinghouse for supernova discoveries - professional and amateur alike. After professional astronomers verified Cruz Cortez’s discovery, the International Astronomical Union designated the event SN 2016adq.

Nasa picked 22 educators to fly with a telescope. They have become Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, a professional development program that the space agency runs to enhance science education. The teachers complete a graduate-level course in infrared astronomy after which they get the chance to fly on Nasa’s custom 747, Sofia, and watch professional scientists conduct infrared astronomy research. The teachers then take their experiences and insights back into the classroom.

Amateur astronomers discovered an exoplanet that the professionals missed in data from Nasa’s Kepler mission, Sky & Telescope Magazine reports. All of the Kepler data flows into the space agency’s open archives where anyone can access them. The Planet Hunters citizen science project, for example, uses the Kepler archives to crowdsource exoplanet discoveries. In this case the two amateurs were working on their own. They notified professionals at the University of Texas who conducted the follow-up observations needed to confirm the discovery. Designated K2-25b, the exoplanet is a prime example of the role amateurs play. Professional missions like Kepler rely on software algorithms to filter the data flowing from the space telescope. But those algorithms are only as good as the rules baked into the code. K2-25b is a strange world that is almost 10% the size of its parent star. It takes the judgement of a human - even an amateur - to see the unexpected.

Einstein@Home is a distributed computing project that lets the public help search for gravitational waves. Distributed computing taps into the unused computing power of its members’ personal computers to process enormous sets of data. For the price of a single server, scientists create a global virtual supercomputer. Scientist M.Alessandra Papa announced on the project’s forum that Einstein@Home’s members will help analyze data from the Advance Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. This is the same observatory that discovered gravitational waves from merged black holes.