The American Astronomical Society's 222nd conference: Dispatches from day 1

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Monday, June 03, 2013

The registration crew was ready and waiting yesterday for those attending the American Astronomical Society's conference in Indianapolis. // AAS
You know it's going to be a good conference when someone changes the desktop background of the opening presenter's computer from an image of the Milky Way to a photo of race cars.

You also know, then, that you're in Indianapolis at the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) 222nd meeting, which I am. Today was the first day of talks, poster sessions, limited free coffee, and scientific results.

The day began with former AAS President David Helfand's welcoming address, a hopeful commentary on the future of the AAS and a political commentary about the current state of policy and funding. Many NASA employees, after having their education programs nixed, also were not permitted to attend this conference, due to sequestration and budget cuts. "It is through social interactions that we advance science," he said.

On Sunday, as the American Astronomical Society was getting ready to enter full swing, three graduations also were occurring in the Indiana Convention Center. Maybe we attracted a few new, young astronomers? // Inge Heyer/AAS
If the talks today are any indication, the 222nd meeting of the AAS will demonstrate exactly how valuable conferences can be.

Helfand's welcome was followed by a prize talk by David Latham: "The Search for Habitable Worlds." He began by saying, “It's really quite remarkable how the field has progressed in the last 20 years. We have improved our ability to measure the masses of small, unseen planets by a factor of 1,000." He gave the rundown on Kepler's candidates, other projects searching for exoplanets (Kepler is [was?] awesome, but it's not the only rock star), and the future space-based exoplanet telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS will launch in 2017 ("if we ever see any money"), and it will focus on targets 30 to 100 times brighter than Kepler's targets. After TESS identifies the "best and smallest,” the James Webb Space Telescope can stare at them and figure out what's in their atmospheres. Latham ended his talk by asking, "How about the detection of biogenic molecules in the atmospheres of rocky planets? Not any time soon, but we can dream."

After that, the discoveries came zooming in, so I'll just highlight some of them briefly, and then you can feel like you were hopping from conference session to conference session with the best of them:

  • Jay Rajagopal of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory discussed A2, a newly discovered active asteroid, which has a dust tail nearly 620,000 miles (1 million kilometers) long. Its discarded material could be “a meteor stream in the making.”
  • Proxima Centauri, which moves quite a bit relative to more-distant stars, soon will pass directly in front of two background sources. Its gravity will bend their light, and details in the bending could reveal  planets (if there are any), said Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
  • An L-dwarf star just 92 percent Jupiter's size flares like it means it — heating its photosphere to three times its normal temperature and releasing energy equivalent to 4 billion megatons of TNT, according to observations presented by John Gizis from the University of Delaware.
  • A team led by Todd Henry of Georgia State University in Atlanta found a star just 3100° F (1700° C). Dim, cool stars like this walk just slightly on the "star" side of the line between "star" and "brown dwarf."
  • The Bar and Spiral Structure Legacy Survey (BeSSeL) found that the arm of the Milky Way in which we live — the aptly named Local Arm — is not just an offshoot of another arm but is a substantial structure of its own. And 16,000 light-years long.
  • Stefan Immler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, presented results from an ultraviolet survey of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These observations were deep and intense (just like you!). The Swift telescope data reflect star clusters and star formation, and the two satellite galaxies contain more than one million such sources that shine in UV light.
  • How does a star-forming dwarf irregular galaxy turn into a dead-zone dwarf elliptical? Hint: It's not by working out to make itself more shapely. According to results that Jeffrey Kenney of Yale University presented, the galaxies' motions strip their gas out, spreading it through space and leaving them without star-forming material.
  • Catherine Pilachowski gave an informative review of globular cluster knowledge, which can be summarized as, "It's complicated." Or at least more complicated than scientists used to think. Globular clusters are diverse, dense (urban?) neighborhoods, but they're fairly segregated. Clusters' three discrete populations of stars have different amounts of light elements like sodium and aluminum. Though globulars are calm now, they collapsed from clouds that were 10 billion times the Sun's mass."Today's globular clusters are the pale ghosts of early, massive star-forming events that lit up the universe," Pilachowski said.

Are you tired yet? Exhilarated? Still processing? Overwhelmed by a barrage of questions? I am at least some of those things. Nevertheless, I'll soon be headed toward tonight's star party, because a person's life is richer if they never turn down an opportunity to see Saturn's rings. If you're in the Indianapolis area between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. tonight, stop by the convention center (100 South Capitol Avenue), where the mobs waiting to look through the telescopes should give the star party's exact location away.

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