On the road: American Astronomical Society June 2012 meeting, Monday recap

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Scenic Anchorage, Alaska, was host to the first full day of the American Astronomical Society’s 220th meeting. (This photo was taken at 9:15 p.m.) // photo by Bill Andrews
It was a big day for planetary science on Monday, the first full day of the 220th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Anchorage, Alaska. As planned, I’d missed the opening reception the day before, so I really wanted to get the most out of today’s events and see everything I could.

It all began at 8 a.m. with a welcoming address from AAS President Debra Elmegreen of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Unlike my previous AAS trips, the hosting city played a big part of the opening talks, with Elmegreen borrowing some of the native peoples’ language and inviting authentic drummers to the stage. Elmegreen also invited University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Tom Case to add a few words about the 49th state’s contributions to astronomy. He wasn’t an astronomer himself, but took heart from a famous quote:“Someone named Brian May said, ‘Astronomy is much more fun when you’re not an astronomer.’" Clearly, it seemed, AAS was happy to be in Anchorage, and Anchorage was just as pleased to have them.

After taking care of other AAS announcements, Elmegreen concluded her remarks by formally recognizing the newest of the society’s six subgroups, the Laboratory Astrophysics Division. She gave the official certificate to members of the division’s working group (precursor to the actual division), and in so doing provided the perfect segue to the next talk, given by Kavli Lecture Prize winner Ewine F. van Dishoeck of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands. Her talk was titled “Laboratory Astrophysics as Key to Understanding the Universe,” and — naturally enough — she provided a spirited defense of the importance of laboratory work in a field more often associated with observing and theorizing. Van Dishoeck provided examples, historical and cutting-edge, of how lab and computer work informed and drove some of astronomy’s most significant discoveries, such the use of spectroscopy to identify distant materials and the understanding of nuclear physics going on within the hearts of stars. “The universe is a pretty exciting laboratory,” she said.

American Astronomical Society President Debra Elmegreen formally recognized the newest subgroup of the society, the Laboratory Astrophysics Division (the first new group in more than 30 years), with an official certificate. // photo by Bill Andrews
After a short break to admire the scenery around the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center (pronounced de-NINE-uh), which housed much of the conference’s events, I attended a special session on “Student Ideas, Teacher Training, and Public Outreach.” The meeting chair, Edward Prather of the University of Arizona in Tucson, mentioned several times how invaluable it is to know exactly what works in the astronomy classroom — and what the teachers themselves might or might not know. The first speakers discussed “general ed” (i.e., non-science majors) student knowledge and how genuinely learning about astronomy, and not just paying “lip service” to the idea of science, helps them incorporate ideas about the universe into a personal worldview. For instance, a number of the surveyed students were confused about the hierarchy of solar systems, galaxies, and the universe, and the term light-year threw many off. (Apparently, a significant portion said they first heard of the unit of distance from The Jetsons. I didn’t see that coming.) Laura Trouille of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, made the point that it’s important not just to teach, but to get students to rethink some concepts they might only vaguely understand. “Students don’t come into our classrooms as blank slates,” she said. Another problem was getting students to understand the true nature of the Big Bang, which many still thought of as a tremendous explosion. Trouille suggested the term “Big Stretch” might be a better one to describe the birth of the universe. The final speaker, Kathryn Williamson of Montana State University in Bozeman, described a program that teaches the teachers called NASA Education Activity Training (NEAT). By showing K-12 teachers novel ways of imparting astronomical knowledge, they’re more capable and enthusiastic about sharing the lessons and activities with students — everyone wins!

After lunch, the planetary sciences took over. First, at a session titled “Solar Systems I,” nine speakers described new discoveries and understandings in our own solar system and beyond. Starting off, Douglas P. Hamilton of the University of Maryland in College Park shared some of the latest WISE observations of Saturn’s huge Phoebe ring, only discovered in 2009; apparently, the ring is even bigger than previously thought, and its behavior doesn’t entirely make sense based on the current models. As always in science, questions remain. Next, Wesley Fraser of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, Canada, discussed the Kuiper Belt object Quaoar and its satellite Weywot (which he pronounced KWAR-war and WAY-woot, respectively). Unlike fellow Kuiper Belt luminary Eris and its moon Dysnomia, Weywot’s orbit around Quaoar is dramatically eccentric, indicating that the two systems might have formed in different ways. A more familiar subject, comets, was the focus of the next few talks, including one from Astronomy contributing author and University of Maryland astronomer Michael F. A’Hearn. He showed new chemical evidence that implied that the various kinds of comets — Long Period, Jupiter Family, and Halley Type — probably formed in overlapping regions, as opposed to previous hypotheses that kept them separate. The last few talks focused on the latest exoplanet detections made possible by improved technology. In particular, Thomas G. Beatty of Ohio State University in Columbus detailed two planets found by the KELT-North transit survey. (Only during the Q&A following his talk did Beatty reveal what KELT stood for: Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. The crowd seemed to like that.) One of these discoveries, KELT-1b, was an unusual brown dwarf (or super-massive planet) some 27 times Jupiter’s mass that transits its companion, an F-type star. Beatty said KELT-1b is of a type “no one’s ever seen before.”

When NASA’s Juno spacecraft launched August 5, 2011, it began a five-year trip to Jupiter that will help astronomers learn some of the answers behind the biggest mysteries of the biggest planet. // photo by Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance
After the Solar Systems session, Fran Bagenal of the University of Colorado, Boulder, brought the planetary science theme closer to home. Her talk, “Is the Magnetosphere of Jupiter a Colossal Comet? What will NASA’s Juno Reveal?” focused on what astronomers would still like to know about the biggest planet in our solar system, and how the upcoming Juno mission should be able to tell them. “We’re all familiar with Jupiter,” Bagenal began, before proceeding to enumerate all the various ways Jupiter still puzzles scientists. For instance, minute changes in the probe’s carefully planned orbit will tell astronomers more about the planet’s gravity, and by mapping Jupiter’s magnetic field, Juno should finally provide some insights on what drives the planet’s insides. “Jupiter’s polar magnetosphere is completely unexplored,” read one of Bagenal’s slides, and she seemed almost giddy at the thought of Juno’s 2016 arrival at the planet to change that fact. (The other part of the talk’s title, speculating if the planet is a “Colossal Comet,” refers to the possibility of plasma-plasma interactions related to the Sun’s influence, like a comet. She didn’t talk about it much.) Bagenal ended her presentation with a video showing off Juno’s launch, and the declaration “We’re on our way!”

Next on the planetary agenda came a lecture titled “Exploring the Planet mercury: One Year of MESSENGER Orbital Observations” from Sean C. Solomon of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. As he pointed out, it was only appropriate, given the previous discussion on probes to the biggest planet, that we now go over the news from the smallest planet — “in the interest of size equity,” he said. The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) probe has answered some of the longest-standing question about the innermost world, such as the nature of its composition and turbulent past, while (of course) leaving new mysteries for astronomers to ponder. Solomon also got a chance to demonstrate his sang-froid on stage when a loud cellphone went off near the front, and he coolly remarked “Oh, Charlie Bolden’s calling one of you guys in the audience.” It wasn’t a talk filled with tons of new info, but it’s always nice to remember how far science has come, and in so little time, regarding Mercury.

Finally, it was time for the last of the day’s lectures, one that combined the various planetary realms: “Transits of Venus and Mercury: Exoplanet Analogs in Our Solar System” by Jay M. Pasachoff of Williams College. This was a public talk, so it was nice to see a relatively good turnout. Nicholas B. Suntzeff of Texas A&M University in College Station introduced Pasachoff, and got the audience excited with the question, “How many of you saw the transit of Venus last week?” Virtually every hand in the room went up — I was impressed. Pasachoff talked in great detail about transits of Venus throughout history, when the world appears to cross our Sun’s face, and he shared numerous photos and animations of the most example. (He only briefly mentioned how spotting equivalent transits on other stars is our best way of finding exoplanets.) Pasachoff clearly knew his stuff, but it seemed like he might have forgotten the crowd was not a scientific one; it’s not that he overindulged with the equations, but there was significant jargon, and, despite his obvious interest in the subject, it wasn’t always obvious why the audience should care. In short, people seemed bored, which is too bad because the subject isn’t, at its core. Still, some of the dramatic photos were impressive enough to rouse the audience out of its stupor, and I’m sure everyone got something out of the talk, even if it wasn’t as much as they’d wanted.

So there we have it! That was the first full day of the AAS summer meeting — and what a day! I’ll be up bright and early tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, attending talks, press conferences, poster sessions, and tweeting throughout (#AAS220). Till then, I’ll try to get some sleep despite the still-strange lack of a night around here..

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