Amateur Space Weekly - March 21

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: Regulation done right could boost amateur access to space
  • Space Makers: Ireland's CanSat competition heads to the finals, Canadian and Israeli lunar missions, and an Australian amateur's DIY satellite project
  • Amateurs in Zero-g: Alabama teens prepare paella for astronauts
  • Exploring Earth: Ground-truthing satellite data and precipitation records, school CubeSats to fly into stratosphere
  • Exploring the Solar System: Citizen scientists can analyze never-before seen images of Mars, amateur observations identify source of St. Patrick's Day meteor
  • Exploring Deep Space: Amateur exoplanet discoveries, graduate-level research by Colorado teens, Ohio teachers to go airborne for science, Irish science classrooms use telescopes in California and India, plus more

Featured News:

Space Makers

Teen model spacecraft makers have advanced to the finals of Ireland’s CanSat competition, the Irish Examiner reports. CanSats are model satellites the size of a soda can that record data while being launched on a high performance rocket. The European Space Agency’s European CanSat Competition promotes science and math education by challenging students to design a CanSat that records temperature and air pressure readings during its one kilometer descent. Each team must conduct a secondary mission such as measuring radiation levels or using more advanced parachutes. Judges also evaluate the teams’ designs and their presentation of their data. The Irish Examiner article reported from the regional final in Cork where four teams competed for a chance in the national finals. The national champion from each Esa member-state will travel to Portugal for a shot at the European championships.

The Google Lunar XPrize has been getting a lot of press over the past few weeks thanks to the release of Moon Shot, a documentary produced by JJ Abrams (now available for free on YouTube). The nine-episode series looks at each team competing to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon. Vox covered the documentary’s debut at last week’s SXSW festival. Many of the teams started out as amateur affairs - people with little experience in spacecraft design who nevertheless put together a competitive team. Scientific American interviewed SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Weintraub. He describes how Israel’s sole entry in the contest has “gone from three guys sitting in a bar… to a fully functional organization with nearly 30 people working full-time headed by a very capable CEO.” The Globe & Mail spoke with PlanB, a Canadian team that retains its amateur-driven approach. The team has spent $250,000 and thousands of hours of volunteer time on their two-wheeled rover, but needs to raise “a couple of Teslas” worth of donations to stay on track.

Australian radio journalist Michaela Carr interviewed amateur satellite-maker Stuart McAndrew about his OzQube-1 project. He explains how he wanted to build a satellite that “people could relate to” and show how Australians can “produce pretty cool things.” His hopes for getting into space depend on raising $50,000.

Amateurs in Zero-G

High schools United with Nasa for the Creation of Hardware (Hunch) is part of Nasa's efforts to foster America's modern manufacturing industry by bringing shop classes back to secondary schools. However schools with culinary arts programs can also join Hunch. The program’s annual contest challenges students to develop a meal that astronauts can eat in zero-g. Alabama’s WHNT TV reports that the Quick Brown Rice Paella created by students Huntsville City School is heading to the finals at Nasa’s Johnson Space Center. This (loud) video explains the contest's criteria:

Exploring Earth

Ground truth is one of the most important ways amateurs contribute to Earth science projects. Discover Magazine’s Citizen Science Salon wrote about a Nasa program that lets the public fact-check satellite data. Several instruments in Nasa’s Earth Observation System report cloud cover by measuring the light reflected off the clouds. Multiple cloud layers, snow-covered ground, and other factors can produce misleading results. Matching the orbital data with ground-based reports helps validate the data. The S’Cool program crowdsources the observations from schools and volunteers around the world.

Cocorahs provides another form of ground truth. Official weather stations are separated by tens or hundreds of kilometers, but weather varies across much shorter distances. Cocorahs volunteers report rain and snow fall levels every day to produce a higher-resolution map of precipitation levels. That helps meteorologists refine their forecasting models, lets emergency planners assess flood risks, and gives climate scientists a better understanding of how microclimates vary. March is recruiting season for Cocorahs which is conducting training sessions across the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. The Stamford Advocate visited one of these workshops and wrote about the many ways weather-spotters help the pros. The Concord Monitor’s David Brooks wrote about his participation in Cocorahs. The University of Delaware’s campus newspaper spoke with state climatologist Kevin Brinson about how easy it is to make and report Cocorahs observations.

Teenagers will send CubeSats into the stratosphere thanks to Airbus Perlan Mission II CubeSat Flight Experiment. Ten schools across the United States and Puerto Rico earned a spot on the Perlan Project’s stratospheric glider. It will ride air currents into Near Space where the student projects will take advantage of the environmental conditions to conduct scientific research. The experiments span materials science, atmospheric science, and life sciences. Teachers In Space organized the contest. The group’s director Elizabeth Kennick said in the press release, “This is an exciting opportunity to have a real hands-on space experience added to the classroom.” 

Exploring the Solar System

Planet Four: Terrains, the crowdsourcing project studying seasonal erosion at the Martian south pole, announced that it added a new set of images of the red planet for citizen scientists to analyze. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera (CTX) produces medium resolution images for scientific research and to plan the HiRise camera’s high-resolution imaging plans. No humans have seen these new CTX images which creates opportunities for amateur discoveries on the red planet.

A bright green fireball streaked over Britain on St. Patrick’s Day, the UK Meteor Observation Network (UKMon) reported. A quirky Irish effort to tweak their neighbors has a certain appeal, but the object was probably a fragment of a comet. The amateur members of UKMon host CCTV cameras that monitor the skies every night for the brightest meteors. They combine the videos with crowdsourced reports from the International Meteor Organization to analyze the fireball’s trajectory both forward to potential meteorite impact zones and backwards to estimate the meteoroid’s origin. In this case the high velocity and trajectory indicates that the object came from an unidentified comet.

Exploring Deep Space

Cassiopeia A is the glowing remnant of a supernova. Shells of gas blasted from the original star have been ionized like a neon sign. High school students in Colorado used radio telescopes to discover that the gas seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time. Credit: Nasa/CXC/SAO

Cassiopeia A is the glowing remnant of a supernova. Shells of gas blasted from the original star have been ionized like a neon sign. High school students in Colorado used radio telescopes to discover that the gas seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time. Credit: Nasa/CXC/SAO

Colorado high school students used radio telescopes to study nebulae, the Reporter-Herald reported. They discovered something strange about Cassiopeia A: it is moving in two different directions at once. A scientist who helped the students called their research “amazing” and compared it to graduate level work.

The Austin Statesman wrote about the exoplanet discovered by amateur astronomers. They scanned data from Nasa’s Kepler Space Telescope and found signs of an exoplanet that mission’s software missed. Professional astronomers at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory conducted followup observations to confirm the discovery.

Yale astronomer Tabetha Boyajian leads the Planet Hunter project. In advance of her address to the Westport (Connecticut) Astronomical Society, Boyajian explained to The Hour how important citizen scientists are to exoplanet research.

A California teen may have discovered more than a dozen exoplanets. Claire Burch wrote python code to process data from the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment. Her analysis produced seventeen exoplanet candidates orbiting stars near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. She presented her results at the Intel Science Talent Search.

Researchers with Radio Galaxy Zoo posted a preprint of their early science results (arXiv: 1603.02645). The crowdsourcing project asks citizen scientists to match data from radio telescopes with data from infrared telescopes. This creates a catalog of jets streaming from the black holes at the center of 60,000 galaxies. The scientists demonstrate how to use the catalog to study these active galactic nucleii. They also explain the role citizen scientists will play when survey projects like the Square Kilometer Array come online.

Spacedotcom reviewed an amateur astronomer’s ebook. Australian astrophotographer Terry Hancock combined his backyard images of nebulae with descriptions by publisher Brian Ventrudo to create The Armchair Astronomer. It is available as an Amazon ebook, a PDF, or an Apple iBook.

Two teachers from Ohio have been picked to ride on Nasa’s flying observatory, Clevelanddotcom reports. The space agency develops science teachers’ understanding of science and the research process through the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program. The teachers take a graduate-level astronomy course before joining professional scientists on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The modified Boeing 747 carries an telescope 35,000 to 40,000 foot altitudes where it flies above most of Earth’s infrared light-absorbing water vapor. Upon their return home the teachers integrate their experience into their science classrooms and conduct workshops with other science teachers.

The Irish Examiner looked at the growing role of astronomy in Ireland’s science classrooms. It focused on the Blackrock Castle Observatory which established partnerships with observatories in California and India to let Irish students use their telescopes. That lets the students make observations during the school-day. More than 30,000 students have attended Blackrock’s workshops. Development grants will let the observatory extend its programs across Ireland.

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