The 232nd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society: Day 1

Posted by Jake Parks
on Tuesday, June 5, 2018

232nd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Jake Parks
Hello from Denver, Colorado, home to the 232nd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society! Though many attendees arrived Sunday evening for this year’s AAS winter meeting, the festivities did not swing into full gear until bright and early Monday morning. But once they did, oh, what a whirlwind day it was.

After first grabbing a quick cup of coffee and browsing a number of research projects during the early morning poster session, I took my seat in preparation for the welcome address by AAS President Christine Jones of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Jones kept it short and sweet, outlining some of the most important and exciting presentations that are slated for this week.

Immediately following the welcome, Debra Fischer of Yale University came to the main stage to give the Kavli Foundation Lecture: From Extrasolar Planets to Exo-Earths. After a quick review of the past 25 years of rapid progress in exoplanetary research, Fischer pointed out that one of the most important discoveries we’ve made so far has to do with the census of planets we’ve compiled. Fischer broke down the other worlds we’ve discovered – hot Jupiters (1%), cold Jupiters (10-15%), ocean worlds (20%), lava worlds (1%), rocky planets (>25%), and more – and highlighted that the exoplanets we know of exist in a bimodal distribution. There seems to be a gap in planets between 1.5 and 2.5 times the radius of Earth, Fischer said. And this gap likely exists for a reason, either due to the physics of planet formation, or due to a bias in exoplanet detections.

Fischer went on to discuss the next steps for exoplanetary research. Essentially, she explained, the goal is to detect biological life, which would modify an exoplanet’s atmosphere. This means we should be heavily focused on studying the atmospheres of other planets. If we can find life on another planet, Fischer says, it will exponentially increase our interest, motivation, and funding for further research. Fortunately, with the recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) expected to start pumping out data in just six short months, we may not have to wait much longer. Furthermore, Fischer noted that the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) – one of four NASA mission concepts currently being prepared for the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey – would be capable of both directly imaging exoplanets and measuring their atmospheric spectra.

A census of exoplanets reveals a gap in the spectrum of planets, hinting at the fact that some gas giants may lose their gaseous shells when they are too close to their host star, leaving just their rocky cores. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt
After Fischer’s invigorating and packed kick-off lecture, I ventured into a much smaller workshop session. Specifically, it was a workshop led by Russell Genet and Rachel Freed, co-founders of the Institute for Student Astronomical Research (InStAR). Now, I knew about this workshop a few weeks back, and knew I was going to attend it. But what I didn’t plan on was that this session (and the extended interview that followed later in the afternoon) would take up a large portion of my day today.

The topic of both the workshop and our subsequent discussion was an innovative program Genet and Freed are very passionate about: astronomy research seminars for students. And when I say students, I don’t mean only graduate students, or even undergraduate students. Instead, Genet and Freed run a program that is aimed at getting high-school and even middle-school students experience performing real astronomical research. And pardon my repetition of phrasing, but when I say real, I mean that these young but extremely capable teens are collecting data, writing up results, submitting academic papers, and getting their papers published in real academic journals with just a little soft-handed mentorship and guidance. This is a fascinating topic to me, so you’ll unfortunately have to wait for me to write up something more comprehensive about the program at a later date.

Although I attended a number of other short breakout sessions and a NASA-led discussion of the current and future state of the agency (much more on that to come), I capped off my first day at the 232nd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society with an evening town hall session: The Promise of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics.

The panel discussion, co-hosted by both NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), revolved around the opportunities and challenges related to multi-messenger astronomy, which can be generally defined as using two or more of gravitons, photons, and particles to learn about the universe. The most recent and obvious case of a multi-messenger signal is the detection of both gravitational waves and photons from a pair of merging neutron stars just before LIGO went offline for scheduled upgrades.

Included in the panel was Daniel Holz (University of Chicago), David Kaplan (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), John Conkling (University of Florida), and Ryan Foley (University of California-Santa Cruz). Despite all the possibilities multi-messenger astronomy has to offer – such as utilizing pulsar timing arrays to detect supermassive black holes before they merge – the interdisciplinary field is still in its infancy. As such, there are many roadblocks and hurdles that must be cleared before it can be fully employed.

To summarize the consensus of the panel, the most pressing challenges facing multi-messenger astronomy tend to revolve around quick and open collaboration, and (you guessed it) funding. According to Conklin, for ground-based facilities to be as successful as possible, a major key will be minimizing the delay between detecting a gravitational wave and notifying telescopes to begin the hunt for a source. And as Foley pointed out, if LISA (a space-based cousin of LIGO) was already out there, then the first detection of gravitational waves from the inspiraling neutron stars would have been about a day before they even merged.

I can’t deny that it’s been a hectic day so far at the AAS summer meeting, but what I can say with confidence is that I’m extremely excited to see what tomorrow has in store. So, until then, sit tight and keep an eye out for much more to come!

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