Hey Citizen Scientists! Help NASA Analyze Images Taken from the Space Station

Calling all citizen scientists, geography buffs, fans of the International Space Station and those who love that orbital perspective!

CosmoQuest has a brand new project in coordination with NASA and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) where you can help identify features in photographs taken by astronauts from the space station.

The project is called Image Detective. I’ve tried it out, and wow, THIS is a lot of fun!

Now, I absolutely love seeing the images taken of Earth from the ISS, and I routinely follow all the astronauts on board on social media so I can see their latest images. And I also love the concept of regular, everyday people doing science. Plus I’m a big fan of CosmoQuest and their ‘quest’ to bring science to the public.

But still, the setup CosmoQuest has is really great and the process is easy. Citizen scientists are asked to help identify geographic features (natural or human-made) and then determine the location on Earth where the photo is centered.

I found that last part to be the most difficult, but I’ve been known to have trouble reading a map … so I’m hoping that I can improve a bit with more practice.

“The astronauts’ photos of Earth are visually stunning, but more than that, they can be used to study our changing Earth,” said our good friend Dr. Pamela Gay, who is the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at ASP. “From erupting volcanoes, to seasonal flooding, these images document the gradual changes that happen to our landscape. The trick is, we need to make these images searchable, and that means taking the time to sort through, analyze, and label (add metadata) the unidentified images within the database of 1.5 million plus photos.”

You can try it out here: http://cosmoquest.org/ImageDetective.

The team says that Image Detective spreads the significant work necessary to label all of the images out to citizen scientists across the world.

“This is a unique, powerful, and beautiful image data set that has already yielded excellent research science. But the data set needs the many eyes and minds of citizen scientists to reach its full potential as a publicly available, searchable catalog,” said Dr. Jennifer Grier, a Senior Scientist and Senior Education and Communication Specialist at Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and CosmoQuest’s lead support scientist. “With the additions that citizen scientists as detectives can make, professional research scientists will be able to conduct more research into our changing world, and do so much more effectively.”

Best Jupiter Images From Juno … So Far

The original plans for the Juno mission to Jupiter didn’t include a color camera. You don’t need color images when the mission’s main goals are to map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, determine the planet’s internal composition, and explore the magnetosphere.

But a camera was added to the manifest, and the incredible images from the JunoCam have been grabbing the spotlight.

As an instrument where students and the public can choose the targets, JunoCam is a “public outreach” camera, meant to educate and captivate everyday people.

“The whole endeavor of JunoCam was to get the public to participate in a meaningful way,” said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, speaking at a press conference last week to showcase Juno’s science and images.

And participate they have. Hundreds of ‘amateur’ image processing enthusiasts have been processing raw data from the JunoCam, turning them into stunning images, many reminiscent of a swirling Van Gogh ‘starry night’ or a cloudscape by Monet.

The swirling cloudtops of Jupiter, as seen by Juno during Perijove 5 on March 27, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Sophia Nasr.

“The contributions of the amateurs are essential,” Hansen said. “I cannot overstate how important the contributions are. We don’t have a way to plan our data without the contributions of the amateur astronomers. We don’t have a big image processing team, so we are completely relying on the help of our citizen scientists.”

Jupiter as seen by Juno during Perijove 6 in May, 2017. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Click on this image to have access to a 125 Megapixel upscaled print portrait.

Featured here are images processed by Seán Doran, Sophia Nasr, Kevin Gill and Jason Major. Like hundreds of others around the world, they anxiously await for data to arrive to Earth, where it is uploaded to the public Juno website. Then they set to work to turn the data into images.

“What I find the most phenomenal of all is that this takes real work,” Hansen said. “When you download a JunoCam image and process it, it’s not something you do in five minutes. The pictures that we get that people upload back onto our site, they’ve invested hours and hours of their own time, and then generously returned that to us.”

This video shows Juno’s trajectory from Perijove 6, and is based on work by Gerald Eichstädt, compiled and edited by Seán Doran. “This is real imagery projected along orbit trajectory,” Doran explained on Twitter.

Many of the images are shared on social media, but you can see the entire gallery of processed JunoCam images here. The Planetary Society also has a wonderful gallery of images processed by people around the world.

Intricate swirls on Jupiter Jupiter, from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass on May 19, 2017. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI /MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.
Details of Jupiter’s swirling gas clouds, as seen by Juno during the Perijove 6 pass in May, 2017. Credit:
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

JunoCam was built by Malin Space Science Systems, which has cameras on previous missions like the Curiosity Mars Rover, the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Color Imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. To withstand the harsh radiation environment at Jupiter, the camera required special protection and a reinforced lens.

Whenever new images arrive, many of us feel exactly like editing enthusiast Björn Jónsson:

Even the science team has expressed their amazement at these images.

“Jupiter looks different than what we expected,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute. “Jupiter from the poles doesn’t look anything like it does from the equator. And the fact the north and south pole don’t look like each other, makes us wonder if the storms are stable, if they going to stay that way for years and years like the the Great Red Spot. Only time will tell us what is true.”

Read our article about the science findings from Juno.

A sequence of images of Jupiter from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass during May, 2017. Credit:
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Part of what makes these images so stunning is that Juno is closer to Jupiter than any previous spacecraft.

“Juno has an elliptical orbit that brings it between the inner edges of Jupiter’s radiation belt and the planet, passing only 5,000 km above the cloud tops,” Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken told me in my book ‘Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.’ “This close proximity to Jupiter is unprecedented, as no other mission has conducted their science mission this close to the planet. We’re right on top of Jupiter, so to speak.”

Juno engineers designed the mission to enable the use of solar panels, which prior to Juno, have never been used on a spacecraft going so far from the Sun. Juno orbits Jupiter in a way that the solar panels are always pointed towards the Sun and the spacecraft never goes behind the planet. Juno’s orbital design not only enabled an historic solar-powered mission, it also established Juno’s unique science orbit.

White oval on Jupiter during Juno’s Perijove 4 pass on February 2, 2017. Processed from raw data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.
Uncalibrated, processed raw image from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass of Jupiter on May 19, 2017. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major.

Juno spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011. After traveling five years and 1.7 billion miles Juno arrived in orbit at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The mission will last until at least February 2018, making 11 science orbits around Jupiter, instead of the 32 laps originally planned. Last year, engineers detected a problem with check valves in the propulsion system, and NASA decided to forego an engine burn to move Juno into a tighter 14-day orbit around Jupiter. The current 53.4 day orbit will be maintained, but depending on how the spacecraft responds, NASA could extend the mission another three years to give Juno more flybys near Jupiter.

The next science flyby will occur on July 11, when Juno will get some close-up views of the famous Great Red Spot.

Thanks to everyone who works on these images.

Animation of six images acquired by NASA’s Juno spacecraft on March 27, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major.
This enhanced color view of Jupiter’s south pole was created by citizen scientist Gabriel Fiset using data from the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Oval storms dot the cloudscape. Approaching the pole, the organized turbulence of Jupiter’s belts and zones transitions into clusters of unorganized filamentary structures, streams of air that resemble giant tangled strings. The image was taken on Dec. 11, 2016 at 9:44 a.m. PST (12:44 p.m. EST), from an altitude of about 32,400 miles (52,200 kilometers) above the planet’s beautiful cloud tops. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset

Meet Steve, A Most Peculiar Aurora

Nicknamed Steve, this unusual aurora feature is a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of hot gas flowing westward at about 13,300 mph, more than 600 times faster than the surrounding air. The photo was taken last fall. Copyright: Instagram.com/davemarkelphoto

This remarkable image was captured last fall by Dave Markel, a photographer based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Later, aurora researcher Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary, discovered Markel’s strange ribbon of light while looking through photos of the northern lights on social media. Knowing he’d found something unusual, Donovan worked sifted through data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission to try and understand the nature of the phenomenon.

Swarm is ESA’s first constellation of Earth observation satellites designed to measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere, providing data that will allow scientists to study the complexities of our protective magnetic field. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Launched on 22 November 2013, three identical Swarm satellites orbit the Earth measuring the magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Speaking at the recent Swarm science meeting in Canada, Donovan explained how this new finding couldn’t have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.

A beautiful aurora featuring green arcs near the horizon and many parallel rays lights up the northern sky last October. A small meteor appears to the right of center. Credit: Bob King

While the shimmering, eerie, light display of auroras might be beautiful and captivating, they’re also a visual reminder that Earth is connected electrically and magnetically to the Sun. The more we know about the aurora, the greater our understanding of that connection and how it affects everything from satellites to power grids to electrically-induced corrosion of oil pipelines.

“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground,” said Prof. Donovan.  “Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”

The Suomi NPP satellite photographed this view of the aurora on December 22, 2016, when the northern lights stretched across northern Canada. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen / Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Colorized and labeled by the author

And that’s where sharing photos and observations on social media can play an important role. Sites like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and Aurorasaurus serve as clearinghouses for observers to report auroral displays.  Aurorasaurus connects citizen scientists to scientists and searches Twitter feeds for instances of the word ‘aurora,’ so skywatchers and scientists alike know the real-time extent of the auroral oval.

At a recent talk, Prof. Donovan met members the popular Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers. Looking at their photos, he came across the purple streak Markel and others had photographed which they’d been referring to as a “proton arc.” But such a feature, caused by hydrogen emission in the upper atmosphere, is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Donovan knew it was something else, but what?Someone suggested “Steve.” Hey, why not?

Aurora researchers now us a network of all-sky cameras and multiple satellites to keep track of the ever-shifting aurora. Click to see the video. Credit: University of Calgary

While the group kept watch for the Steve’s return,  Donovan and colleagues looked through data from the Swarm mission and his network of all-sky cameras. Before long he was able to match a ground sighting of streak to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” said Donovan.

“The temperature 186 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/second compared to a speed of about 10 meters/second either side of the ribbon. A friend of mine compared it to a fluorescent light without the glass.

Little did I know I’d met Steve back on May 18, 1990 in this remarkable, narrow arc that stretched from the northwestern horizon to the southeastern. To the eye, a “wind” of vague forms pulsed through the arc. The Big Dipper stands vertically at right. Credit: Bob King

It turns out that these high-speed “rivers” of glowing auroral gas are much more common than we’d thought, and that in no small measure because of the efforts of an army of skywatchers and aurora photographers who keep watch for that telltale green glow in the northern sky.

I spoke to Steve’s keeper, Dave Markel, via e-mail yesterday and he described what the arc looked like to his eyes:

“It’s similar to the image just not as intense. It looks like a massive contrail moving rapidly across the sky. This one lasted almost an hour and ran in an arc almost perfectly east to west. I was directly below it but often there are green pickets (parallel streaks of aurora) rising above the streak.”

This is the same May 18, 1990 streak as above but the eastern half. The bright star Arcturus is visible at upper right. Wish I’d had a fisheye! Credit: Bob King

I know whereof Dave speaks because thanks to his photo and Prof. Donovan’s research, I realize I’ve seen and photographed Steve, too! In decades of aurora watching I’ve only seen this rare streak a handful of times. On most of those occasions, there was either no other aurora visible or minor activity in the northern sky. The narrow arc, which lasted for an hour or so, pulsed and flowed with light and occasionally, Markel’s “pickets” were visible. Back in May 1990 I had a camera on hand to get a picture.

Goes to show, you never know what you might see when you poke your head out for a look. Keep a lookout when aurora’s expected and maybe you’ll get to meet Steve, too.

Join the Eclipse MegaMovie 2017 Chronicling the August Total Solar Eclipse

Eclipse Diamond Ring
Eclipse Diamond Ring
The November 2012 total solar eclipse as seen from Australia. The Eclipse Megamovie project hopes to capture a similar extended view. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky Photography.

Ready for the “Great American Eclipse?” We’re now less than six months out from the long-anticipated total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast. And while folks are scrambling to make last minute plans to stand in the path of totality on Monday, August 21st 2017, a unique project named the Eclipse Megamovie 2017 seeks seeks to document the view across the entire path.

The Project: Sponsored by Google’s Making & Science Initiative and led by Scott McIntosh from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory and Hugh Hudson from the University of California at Berkeley, the Eclipse Megamovie Project seeks to recruit 1,500 observers stationed across the eclipse path from Oregon to South Carolina. Although individual observers will only experience a maximum totality length of 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the complete span of the Eclipse Megamovie will last 90 minutes, compiled using observer images from coast-to-coast.

Mega movie
Getting ready for the Eclipse Megamovie project. Credit: Eclipse Megamovie Project.

“The movie is a tool for scientific exploration,” Hudson said in a recent University of California at Berkeley press release. “We’ll be collecting this level of data for the first time, from millions of observers, and it will be a valuable archive. But we don’t know what we’ll see or what we’ll learn about the interactions between the chromosphere and the corona.”

One portion of the project will have trained volunteers image the Sun from along the eclipse path using DSLRs, while another portion of the project will feature smartphone users imaging totality using a forthcoming Eclipse Megamovie app for a full length lower resolution movie.

Bikers and Baily’s Beads

The only total solar eclipse for 2017, totality for this eclipse occurs along a 114 kilometer-wide path touching on 12 states. Millions live within an easy day drive of the eclipse path, so expect lots of general public interest leading up to eclipse day. August is RV and camping season, so expect camplots to fill up quickly as well. The eclipse also occurs just over a week after the annual Biker’s Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, affording motorcyclists a chance to stand in the shadow of the Moon en route to the annual pilgrimage.

Great American Eclipse
The path of the August 21st, 2017 eclipse across the United States. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Eclipse-Maps.

The last total solar eclipse to cross one of the 50 United States graced Hawaii on July 11th, 1991, and the last time the umbra of the Moon touched down over the lower 48 states was on February 26th, 1979 across the United States northwest. But you have to go all the way back over almost a century ago to June 8th, 1918 to find an eclipse featuring totality which exclusively spanned the United States from sea to shining sea.

Observers have chased after the umbra seeking to extend fleeting totality before. Eclipse chasers documented the January 24th, 1925 eclipse from aloft aboard a dirigible over New York City. On June 30th, 1973, a supersonic Concorde flight chased the umbra of the Moon across northern Africa, extending totality out to 74 minutes.

The team was also on hand to perform a dry run test of the Megamovie Project at this past weekend’s annular eclipse which crossed South America, the Southern Atlantic and Africa and reports that the field test of the promised project app by Mark Bender worked admirably, and the Eclipse Megamovie App should be available to the general public soon.

Baily's Beads
A mosaic of the 2016 total solar eclipse, depicting the evolution of Baily’s Beads before and after totality. Image credit and copyright: Steed Joy.

What sort of science can such a project offer? What is left to learn from a total solar eclipse after centuries of scientific study? Well, some of the most accurate measurements of the solar diameter and the size and shape of the Sun have been made during solar eclipses. A long movie may also reveal streamers and development of the solar corona, the ethereal pearly white glowing outer atmosphere surrounding the Sun. About half as bright as a Full Moon, we only get a brief glimpse of the corona during totality. Also, the Eclipse Megamovie will get another shot at the project in April 2024, when another eclipse crosses the United States from Texas to Maine.

The Eclipse Megamovie is taking volunteers now. The gear setup required is simple, and you might have what’s needed to image the eclipse laying around already.

DSLR
Got a tripod-mounted, zoom lens equipped DSLR? Photo by author.

You’ll need a DSLR camera with a sturdy tripod, a zoom or fixed lens of 300mm focal length or better, and an ability to nail down your GPS location and the time to the nearest second. Once the volunteers are selected, training will be provided to include GPS and time stamping images, flat-fielding and more.

Phone apps will readily supply the GPS part. For time, I’d go with with WWV Radio, which broadcasts a continuous audio time hack out of Fort Collins, Colorado. This is in Universal Time, and has an accuracy of better than a second better than online time sources, which occasionally lag due to spurious web connections.

Keep in mind, you’ll be photographing the eclipsed Sun during very brief moments of totality. You’ll need to have approved solar glasses and filters in place during all partial phases leading up to and immediately after the eclipse. The Eclipse Megamovie project also hopes to catch sight of the Bailey’s Beads phenomenon as final streamers of sunlight pour through the lunar valleys, giving the illusion known as the Diamond Ring effect.

TSE2017
An animation of the August 21st, 2017 total solar eclipse. A.T. Sinclair/NASA/GSFC

And us? We’ll be casting our hubris at the Universe and catch the eclipse from Columbia, South Carolina. We’re heeding the advice of veteran eclipse chasers, and simply enjoying our first eclipse, and imaging our second, though we may sneak in a few shots for the Eclipse Megamovie project. Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain and astronomer and AstronomyCast host Pamela Gay will lead a group watching from southern Illinois, and we’ve also heard from many other observers from around the world who’ll be visiting the U.S. the August… where will you be?

And we’ve already got a spot picked out for 2024, as the next total solar eclipse crosses Aroostook County and our hometown of Mapleton, Maine… hey, you can never start planning too early, right?

Get set for an eclipse for the ages, and be sure to contribute to the Eclipse Megamovie Project.

-Read about all eclipses, comets, occultations and more for the year in our guide to 101 Astronomical Events for 2017, free from Universe Today.

-Eclipse… science fiction? Check out our original eclipse-fueled sci-fi tales Exeligmos, Shadowfall, the Syzygy Gambit, Peak Season and more.

NASA Needs Your Help With the “Long-Duration” Space Poop Problem

It turns out, that famous question of “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” is not so easy to answer. At least, not when it comes to ‘going’ — repeatedly — in your spacesuit, when you may have been wearing it continually for six days or more.

“The problem is a little bit unknown, since the scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than a couple of hours is a newer issue that pertains to preparations for deep space exploration,” said Paul Musille, who is the Project Manager for the HeroX-NASA Space Poop Challenge.

Yes, NASA really has a Space Poop Challenge. And the deadline is looming.

This challenge is one of the latest projects from the NASA Tournament Lab, a program that asks members of the public to help come up with “novel ideas or solutions” for space-related problems. It’s hosted by the crowd-sourcing platform HeroX. (Disclosure, Universe Today Publisher Fraser Cain used to work for HeroX.)

The toilet on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
The toilet on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved -– in NASA style, complete with acronyms. On board the International Space Station (ISS) there’s the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), a life support system that among other things, helps with waste management and water supply (yes, urine is recycled into water). The zero gravity toilet on the ISS is a fan driven fan-driven suction system called the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC). Then there are the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks.

But what happens during long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit?

“It is pretty clear that the MAG solution will not be a safe option for longer duration use,” Musille told Universe Today, “and that the system used on the ISS is also not appropriately sized for application inside a suit.”
The Space Poop Challenge is looking to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.

“What’s needed is a system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands,” HeroX says on the Space Poop Challenge site. “The system has to operate in the conditions of space – where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as “zero gravity”) and don’t necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth. This system will help keep astronauts alive and healthy over 6 days, or 144 hrs.”

NASA’s Rick Mastracchio explains the problems in this video:

Since astronauts might have unique perspective as far as input for ideas, Musille said that as part of the joint project design process with NASA, his team conferred with astronauts and other technical experts at the space agency.

But NASA thinks the public could offer good ideas, too. Of all the ideas submitted through the HeroX challenge, up to three will be chosen as possible solutions, with up to $30,000 total in prize money.

What might be the biggest obstacle to overcome?

“I think the biggest hurdle might be the limited space inside the MACES (Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit, the spacesuit being developed for use on the Orion spacecraft),” Musille said via email. “This directly prevents adaptation of other toilet systems made for space, like the one used on the ISS.”

Got any ideas for solving this messy challenge? The deadline for this challenge is Dec. 20, and HeroX says this has been one of their most popular challenges, breaking records in the number submissions, the number of different countries represented, registrations, and page views per day.

You can find more information about the contest here.

Astronauts test out the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES), a closed-loop version of the launch and entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts that may be used in the Orion spacecraft.  The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford.
Astronauts test out the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES), a closed-loop version of the launch and entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts that may be used in the Orion spacecraft. The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford.

At ISO 400,000, This 6-Minute Film Shows Why We Love the Night Sky

Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.

“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”

“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”

In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”

As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”

Check out more on Uncage The Soul Productions, Canales’ astrophoto website and Facebook.

Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.

Infinity ² from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.

Citizen Scientists Help Crack 300 Year Old Mystery Of Eclipse Wind

Being able to witness a solar eclipse is certainly a distinct experience. Even though the spectacle is mostly visual, there can be other effects as well. The air can cool, and observers may notice a decrease in wind speed or a change in wind direction. There might even be an eerie silence.

Experiences like this have been noted for centuries, and famed astronomer Edmund Halley wrote of the ‘Chill and Damp which attended the Darkness’ during an eclipse in 1715, which he noted caused ‘some sense of Horror’ among those who were witnessing the event.

While most people would describe an eclipse as ‘awe-inspiring’ (and not horrifying at all) the atmospheric changes noted by observers over the years has been called the “eclipse wind.” And now, based on the observations of over 4,500 citizen scientists in the UK during the partial eclipse on March 20, 2015, this effect is not just a figment of anyone’s imagination; it is a real phenomenon.

Partial phases of the solar eclipse on March 20, 2015 as seen from the United Kingdom. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.
Partial phases of the solar eclipse today as seen from the United Kingdom. Credit and copyright: Sarah and Simon Fisher.

The National Eclipse Weather Experiment (NEWEx) was a UK-wide citizen science project for collecting atmospheric data during that eclipse. Members of the public – including about 200 schools – recorded weather changes such as air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and cloud cover every five minutes during the eclipse. That data, submitted online, was compared with official data from the UK’s Met office observations, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.

“The NEWEx was, as far as we know, a world first, in measuring and analyzing eclipse changes in the weather on a national scale, in close to real time, through engagement of a network of citizen scientists,” wrote researchers Luke Barnard, Giles Harrison, Suzanne Gray and Antonio Portas from the University of Reading, in one of a series of new papers about eclipse meteorology published this week.

The data revealed that not only did the atmosphere cool during the eclipse – which is not surprising since solar radiation is being blocked by the Moon – but the winds and cloud cover also decreased. The cumulative effect is real, not just anecdotal, the team said.

The Data

NEWEx collected 15,606 meteorological observations from 309 locations within the UK and from those observations the science team was able to derive estimates of the near-surface air temperature, cloudiness and near-surface wind speed fields across many UK sites. The data submitted by citizen scientists were combined with Met Office surface weather stations and a network of roadside weather sensors that monitor highway conditions. The combination of data helped unravel the centuries-old mystery of the eclipse wind.

Geographical distribution of participants in the NEWEx citizen science project during the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse in the UK, with designations between schools (yellow squares) and non-schools (pink dots). Credit: Antonio M. Portas, Luke Barnard, Chris Scott, R. Giles Harrison.
Geographical distribution of participants in the NEWEx citizen science project during the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse in the UK, with designations between schools (yellow squares) and non-schools (pink dots). Credit: Antonio M. Portas, Luke Barnard, Chris Scott, R. Giles Harrison.
From analysis of the data, they found that the wind change is caused by variations to the “boundary layer” – the area of air that usually separates high-level winds from those at the ground.

“There have been lots of theories about the eclipse wind over the years, but we think this is the most compelling explanation yet,” said Harrison in a press release from the University of Reading in the UK. “As the sun disappears behind the moon the ground suddenly cools, just like at sunset. This means warm air stops rising from the ground, causing a drop in wind speed and a shift in its direction, as the slowing of the air by the Earth’s surface changes.”

The measurements from citizen scientists clearly showed temperature drops and a decrease in clouds. The team did note that because of the low velocity of winds and some areas where cloud cover change was small, it was difficult for the participants to make some of the measurements. But the high level of participation across the UK provided enough data for the team to make their conclusions.

“Halley also relied on combining eclipse observations from amateur investigators across Britain. We have continued his approach,” Harrison said.

A total of 16 new papers and reports were published this week in a special ‘eclipse meteorology’ issue of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The special issue is published 301 years after Halley’s report of the eclipse in London in 1715 – and in exactly the same journal.

The team wrote that they hope a similar citizen science effort might take place in August 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America, providing another opportunity to study eclipse-induced meteorology changes.
“NEWEx serves as a useful example of the strengths and challenges of using a citizen science approach to study eclipse-induced meteorological changes, and could provide a template for a similar study for the August 2017 eclipse,” the team said.

Sources: Paper: The National Eclipse Weather Experiment: an assessment of citizen scientist weather observations, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, University of Reading.

New System Discovered with Five Planets

A new study announced the discovery of a new system hosting five transiting planets (image credit: jhmart1/deviantart).
A new study announced the discovery of a system hosting five transiting planets (image credit: jhmart1/deviantart).

NASA’s planet-discovering Kepler mission suffered a major mechanical failure in May 2013, but thanks to innovative techniques subsequently implemented by astronomers the satellite continues to uncover worlds beyond our Solar System (i.e., exoplanets).  Indeed, Andrew Vanderburg (CfA) and colleagues just published results highlighting a new system found to host five transiting planets, which include: two sub-Neptune sized planets, a Neptune sized planet, a sub-Saturn sized planet, and a Jupiter sized planet.

Continue reading “New System Discovered with Five Planets”

Russian Crowdfunded Satellite May Soon Become Brightest “Star” in the Sky

Artist’s view of the proposed Mayak (Beacon) satellite fully unfurled and orbiting Earth. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

We may soon look up and see a satellite brighter than the space station and even Venus gliding across the night sky if a Russian crowdfunding effort succeeds. An enthusiastic team of students from Moscow University of Mechanical Engineering are using Boomstarter, the Russian equivalent of Kickstarter, to raise the money needed to build and launch a pyramid-shaped satellite made of highly reflective material they’re calling Mayak, Russian for “Beacon”.


Young engineers at Moscow University explain the Mayak Project

To date they’ve collected more than $23,000 or 1.7 million rubles. Judging from the video, the team has built the canister that would hold the satellite (folded up inside) and performed a high-altitude test using a balloon. If funding is secured, Beacon is scheduled to launch on a Soyuz-2 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the second quarter of this year.

Illustration of the “Beacon” unfurling from its canister when it reaches orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Illustration of the “Beacon” inflating from its canister after reaching orbit. The Mayak Project used the Russian version of Kickstarter called Boomstarter to fund the project. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once in orbit, Beacon will inflate into a pyramid with a surface area of 172 square feet (16 square meters). Made of reflective metallized film 20 times thinner than a human hair, the satellite is expected to become the brightest man-made object in orbit ever. That title is currently held by the International Space Station which can shine as brightly as magnitude -3 or about three times fainter than Venus. The brightest satellites, the Iridiums, can flare to magnitude -8 (as bright as the crescent moon) but only for a few seconds before fading back to invisibility. They form a “constellation” of  some 66 satellites that provide data and voice communications.

A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective "Beacon" satellite. Credit:
A student at the Mayak Lab in Moscow describes the container used to hold the reflective “Beacon” satellite. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

A concurrently-developed mobile app would allow users to know when Beacon would pass over a particular location. The students hope to achieve more than just track a bright, moving light across the sky. According to their website, the goal of the project is the “popularization of astronautics and space research in Russia, as well as improving the attractiveness of science and technology education among young people.” They want to show that almost anyone can build and send a spacecraft into orbit, not just corporations and governments.

Further, the students hope to test aerodynamic braking in the atmosphere and find out more about the density of air at orbital altitudes. Interested donors can give anywhere from 300 rubles (about $5) up 300,000 ($4,000). The more money, the more access you’ll have to the group and news of the satellite’s progress; the top donor will get invited to watch the launch on-site.

Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project
Liftoff! Moscow University students release the satellite on a test run. Credit: cosmomayak.ru / Mayak Project

Once finished with the Mayak Project, the team wants to built another version that uses that atmosphere for braking its speed and returning it — and future satellites — safely back to Earth without the need for retro-rockets.

I think all these goals are worthy, and I admire the students’ enthusiasm. I only hope that satellite launching doesn’t become so cheap and popular that we end up lighting up the night sky even further. What do you think?

J.J. Abrams Heading To The Moon With Google Lunar X-Prize

As the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”, J.J. Abrams is no stranger to space narratives. But now he’s leaving behind light saber battles and warp drive chase sequences to tackle something a little more realistic.

Abrams’ newest project is a 9 part documentary series, called “Moon Shot,” that showcases 16 different teams of people competing for Google’s Lunar X-Prize. The teams of entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors will have to engineer a spacecraft, have it land a rover on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and then transmit HD video and images back to Earth. And they have to have their launch contract verified by the end of 2017. This is a daunting task.

Though the Moon might appear rather placid, and even safe compared to some of the hostile environments Earthlings and their spacecraft have ventured to, it’s not an easy place to do business in. We’re getting used to seeing rovers and landers and orbiters visit the Moon in what seems like a work-a-day process. But the Moon is still a hostile place.

The temperature on the Moon fluctuates wildly. At its coldest, the temperature drops to a frigid -246 C (-412 F.) At its hottest, the temperature jumps to a scorching  100 C (212F.) A 350 C swing in temperatures is hard on equipment and requires robust designing and engineering.

Temperature fluctuation aside, there is also the increased radiation to contend with. The Moon lacks the magnetosphere and atmosphere that protects Earth from the full onslaught of the Sun, so sensitive electronics have to contend with that. And then there’s the dust, which can also be hard on equipment. Remember, the Google Lunar X-Prize is a competition to land a privately-funded robot on the Moon.  Dealing with these formidable challenges as a small team is much harder, considering that the teams don’t have the resources that NASA and other groups have. But with $30 million in prize money at stake, we can expect to see some highly-motivated people competing.

Competitors include a German team backed by Audi (teams have to prove that they are 90% funded by private money,) a father and son working from a bedroom in Vancouver, a team of IT specialists from India, and a Japanese team from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Tohoku University.

Though the science aspect of the series will no doubt be fascinating—the Japanese team has revealed that they will use VR to control their innovative camera system—it’s the stories of the people trying to win the prize that should be even more gripping. Who are these people? What drives these people to do such a thing?

The series will be available for viewing on YouTube on March 17, 2016, and on Google Play on March 15, 2016. Can’t wait to check it out.