Archive for the ‘Astronomy & Space’ Category

Super Moon, Super Meteor Showers, Super Citizen Science

By August 9th, 2014 at 4:08 am | Comment

On Sunday August 10, join Slooh and citizen scientists as they observe the Super Moon.

Don’t miss a live interview (Sunday at 7:30 ET) with SciStarter’s founder Darlene Cavalier on Slooh, the telescope and astronomy website devoted to stars and the cosmos.


Credit NASA


There is a tendency to prefix anything dramatic, unusual or super with…well, the prefix ‘super,’ which is partly why the Moon is called super twice more this year. Let me explain.  When a new Moon coincides with the closest approach the Moon has on its elliptical path to the Earth (because of this the Moon’s orbit typically varies between about 222,000 miles and 252,000 miles from the Earth), it actually appears from 7 to 30 percent larger and brighter, especially when it’s close to the horizon. That happens on the 10th of August—tomorrow—and again on the 9th of September 2014.  Slooh will be broadcasting live coverage of the event.

The term ‘super moon’ is not used in professional astronomical circles, but rather has its roots in modern astrology—the high tides created at this time are believed by some to cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and it has actually been blamed for sinking the Titanic (although there has not been any evidence to support this), and for the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

What’s so super about the Moon this weekend? The perigee (that’s what astronomers call it) will coincide with meteor showers. Named Perseid, it is possible to see as many as 100 shooting stars every hour; probably peaking between August 10 and August 13, with the best time to view the shower at about 2 am.

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NanoRacks Launches Four Payloads on SpaceX-3

By June 2nd, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Comment

What do Cheerleaders, Flies and Cancer Research Have in Common?


Houston, TX-May 12, 2014 — NanoRacks is excited to have continued broad participation aboard the International Space Station (ISS) through partnerships with citizen and student scientists on the SpaceX-3.

The launch occurred on April 18th from Cape Canaveral, FL. NanoRacks is hosting four payloads on the International Space Station that incorporate work from over eight institutions, both domestic and international. NanoRacks is pleased to have launched two of the seven winners of the Space Florida International Space Station Research Competition on the SpaceX CRS-3 launch.

“The breadth and range of these latest experiments vividly shows how utilization of the International Space Station has accelerated,” said NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber. “We want to thank all our partners with a special shout-out to Space Florida for their ISS Research Competition program”

The on-station payloads included work of students and researchers from UCDavis, Stanford University, Ohio State University, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, NASA Ames, NASA JSC, Texas Southern University, Savannah State, Jarvis Christian College, Tougaloo College, and Prairie View A & M (NASA’s ISS Tier2/Tier3 University Research Project), the Science Cheerleaders, and the German space agency, DLR.

NanoRacks ISS facilities and services are made possible via a space act agreement with NASA. Each of the four payloads launched had a unique mission:

MERCCURI: Microbiologists from UCDavis and the Science Cheerleaders, along with thousands of other citizen scientists from SciStarter, are working to compare the growth of microbes from built environments on Earth with their growth on ISS. They will compare types of microbes found on Earth with those found by astronauts aboard the ISS.

UR-1: Researchers and students from Texas Southern University, Savannah State, Jarvis Christian College, Tougaloo College, and Prairie View A & M (NASA’s first ISS Tier2/Tier3 University Research Project (thus, UR-1)) are focusing on Pharmacology, Immunology, and Cancer research through the NanoRacks platform, with the goal to investigate countermeasures that could “modulate and augment the immune system” focusing on Pharmacology, Immunology, and Cancer research through the NanoRacks platform, with the goal to investigate countermeasures that could “modulate and augment the immune system.”

HeartFlies: Stanford University, Ohio State University, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and NASA Ames launched HeartFlies. HeartFlies is a medical experiment set to understand the effects of space travel on astronaut cardiovascular systems.

Cancer CellBox: Germany’s DLR is carrying out experiments on “scavenger cells” of the human immune system and on human thyroid cancer cells. CellBox will study changes in cellular and molecular function as a result of microgravity. NanoRacks was the first commercial provider that commissioned for transporting and carrying out experiments for the German Space Agency, DLR. Through the CellBox mission, DLR is trying new ways to offer German scientists cost-effective options for carrying out experiments in space.

About NanoRacks:
NanoRacks, LLC – was founded in 2009 in Houston, Texas. They are the market leader in commercialized and scheduled space operations on the ISS via a Space Act Agreement with NASA and their own hardware inside and outside the ISS. To date, over 150 payloads have been delivered to space under the direction of NanoRacks.

Release Date: May 28, 2014

For more information: Email or download the press release.

Image: Robert Neff

This originally appeared on the NanoRacks’ Press Release page.

A Citizen Scientist’s Guide (and Pronunciation Guide) to the Camelopardalids Meteor Shower

By May 22nd, 2014 at 11:22 am | Comment

209P/LINEAR comet

How to use the American Meteor Society’s smartphone app (iOS and Android) to create observer reports of fireballs and meteors during the Camelopardalids this weekend.

Coming soon to a sky near you: a brand new meteor shower!

Barring all cloudy conditions and light-polluted landscapes, you should be able to bear witness to the Camelopardalids this Friday, May 23, 2014 (going into the morning of Saturday, May 24, 2014).

As Earth orbits the sun, sometimes it passes through the stream of debris left by a comet. If the timing is just right, the debris enters the atmosphere and create trails of light in the sky, more colloquially referred to as “shooting stars.” Alas, they aren’t stars at all but tiny pieces of pebble, rock, and grains as fine as sand.

The comet responsible for this shower is 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 by Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, for which it’s nicknamed. It came to closest to our sun (perihelion) on May 6, 2014, but it’ll miss Earth by about 8.3 million kilometers (about 5 million miles) at its closest on May 29, 2014. Don’t worry — we’re not in any danger from it…this time around.

What you can do while you watch the Camelopardalids

The American Meteor Society invites you to report fireball and meteor sightings with their smartphone app and browser-based field logger. The smartphone app allows witnesses to log details about their observations using a mobile device, meaning you can take it with you to your preferred viewing locations — your backyard, a hiking trail, the beach, etc. Sensors in the phone provide a means of triangulating your GPS location, the azimuth and elevation levels, and start/end points of the meteor. Using this data, the AMS can not only accurately determine where meteors occur, but they can also use the data to trace their orbits to their origins.

Simply start your observing session and then each time you see a meteor point to that place in the sky and swipe your finger on the screen in the direction the meteor traveled. Observation data is uploaded to the AMS website, available under your profile there and shared with the scientific community. You can also use the AMS app to look up a meteor shower calendar with star charts and moon conditions for all major and minor showers throughout the year.

[You can also read about contributor Angus Chen's conversation with Mike Hankey from the American Meteor Society on SciStarter's Citizen Science Salon at]

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 10.40.28 AM

No matter where you’re watching it from, this cosmic event should be exciting and accessible to astronomers and amateur citizen scientists alike.

Oh, and in case you’re curious about how to pronounce “Camelopardalids,” don’t worry — Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has got you covered:


Plait, Phil. “We May Get a Major Meteor Shower on Friday May 23-24.” Bad Astronomy. MAY 20 2014 7:00 AM.

209P/LINEAR. (2014, May 21). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:54, May 22, 2014.

“Fireballs.” American Meteor Society (2014, May 21).

Image: Wikimedia

Lily Bui is the Executive Editor of SciStarter and holds dual degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. She is also the STEM Story Project Associate for Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in Cambridge, MA. This fall, she’ll be a masters candidate in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Previously, she helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival, out of WBEZ Chicago. In past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns. Follow @dangerbui.

Verify the Sky with the SatCam App and Citizen Science

By April 30th, 2014 at 10:00 am | Comment


A composite image of the USA, captured by Terra’s MODIS. Photo provided courtesy of UW-Madison SSEC.

Help researchers determine accuracy of satellite data by capturing and uploading ground observations from your phone.

Want more citizen science? There’s an app for that.

We may not realize it, but artificial satellites are responsible for so many aspects of our daily lives.  They dictate our ability to communicate with one another, assist in the navigation of aircraft and ships, monitor and deliver top-secret military information for our security and protection, and track atmospheric and weather changes.

The ability to track weather patterns is an important tool in our daily lives—on one hand, we can figure out whether to bring an umbrella, or wear an extra layer of clothing.  On the other hand, the government, organizations and individuals can plan (and if necessary, evacuate) for extreme weather conditions, such as storms and tornadoes.  Tracking these changes over the long term is also necessary to determine the impact of climate change.  For these reasons, data that is used to track weather patterns needs to be accurate.


iPhone screenshot of the SatCam app after an observation has been made.

However, even technologically advanced satellite monitoring systems have issues with resolution.  For example, sometimes the satellite cannot discern between cloud covering and snow.  To resolve this issue, a team led by Liam Gumley at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, developed SatCam (official site), a free iOS app designed to verify images taken by three Earth-observing satellites:

Terra – a NASA satellite that collects data about earth’s changing climate;

Aqua  - a NASA satellite that collects data about the earth’s water cycle;

Suomi-NPP  - a NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) satellite that collects long term climate change and short-term weather data.

With SatCam, anyone with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch can become a citizen scientist and verify satellite images.  The app alerts the user when a satellite is approaching.  Once the user is outdoors and once the satellite is in range, point the device at the sky and the app will automatically take a picture.  SatCam will prompt the user to take a picture of corresponding horizon, classify the cloud conditions (cloudy, overcast or clear) and classify the ground conditions (urban or vegetation).  Once the data is submitted and processed, the app’s “history tab” displays the user’s data and the satellite’s image of the same location on one screen.  If you have ever wondered what your neighborhood looks like from over 700km (435 miles) away, you can find out with SatCam.

The first SatCam images were recorded in May 2012.  Within two years, over 10,000 images have been recorded from locations all over the world. Margaret Mooney, the Education and Public Outreach Director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Studies (part of the SSEC), said that the app “has taken a life of its own” due to promotion at conferences and Facebook, and it “raises awareness of satellites and of the local environment, and provides ground-truth” to the data obtained by satellites.  Educators can employ SatCam as an educational tool, in conjunction with other science educational programs such as GLOBE.

SatCam’s team hopes to expand the app’s capabilities in the near future.  According to Mooney, SSEC has submitted a proposal for NASA’s Air Quality group, which would incorporate the ability to record air quality data within the app.

More information:

iOS app

SatCam records

SSEC’s Facebook page

Images: SSEC

Rae Moore has a BS in Chemistry from McMaster University and studied Bioinorganic Chemistry as a PhD student at McGill University. She has also been a cheerleading coach, yoga teacher, and preschool science educator. Now she focuses on science education and advocacy, and blogs about scientific job searching on her blog,

3, 2, 1…Project MERCCURI Blasts Off to the ISS Today!!

By April 14th, 2014 at 11:40 am | Comment


What happens when you combine professional cheerleaders, microbiologists, and astronauts? The answer is Project MERCCURI and the Microbial Playoffs… in SPAAACE!

SPACE FLORIDA, FL — Today, something  amazing is headed toward the ISS—microbial life from earth!This moment is the culmination of a citizen science experiment called Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the ISS), a collaboration between NASA, UC Davis, SciStarter, and Science Cheerleaders.

Watch the launch LIVE today at 4:58pm ET / 1:58 PT on NASA TV!!

There were two main goals for the project. The first involves a huge competition that will take place on the ISS between 47 different microbes that have been collected by thousands of public participants from the surfaces of various public spaces (mostly sporting venues). The microbial competitors will face off against each other to see who will grow the fastest, and the race will be monitored by astronauts on the ISS, using standard laboratory equipment. Researchers at UC Davis will host an identical race using the same kind of equipment on Earth.

The second  goal involves sending 4,000 cell samples to Argonne National Lab to be sequenced by Jack Gilbert. The lab will identify which microbes are present on the surfaces of cell phones and shoes and compare them to other cell phone and shoe samples from around the country. While astronauts do not carry cell phones or wear shoes, they will be swabbing similar surfaces onboard the ISS, like foot holds that they strap their feet into while they are operating the external robotic arms and their wall-mounted communication devices.

You can get to know all of the microbial competitors, who they are, where they’re from, and why they are so cool on the official website. If you want, you can even print your own Microbial Trading Cards. Cell phone and shoe collections will continue through April!

The microbes are sailing into space today aboard Space X’s Dragon spacecraft. SciStarter’s founder, Darlene Cavalier, is on site today at the launch. She notes, “We’re here, in part, as representatives of the thousands of citizen scientists who participated in this important research project to study microbes on Earth and in space!”


Thank you to all who made this project possible. It’s pure proof that the sky is the limit for what we can do in science, together.

For more, follow #SpaceMicrobes on Twitter.

Image: Darlene Cavalier