On the road: January 2012 AAS meeting, Wednesday recap

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Even though the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting still has another day of research presentations and invited talks, today was the last day of press conferences — and the organizers made sure it was a good one.

Virginia Trimble, Eric Mamajek, John Johnson, and William Welsh (left to right) presented during the extrasolar planet press conference at AAS. // Photo by Liz Kruesi
Members of the Kepler mission to discover extrasolar planets revealed some exciting new finds. William Welsh of San Diego State University in California announced two more cases of an exoplanet orbiting a double star system — the “Tatooine” situation. Each of these worlds (Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b) are roughly Saturn-sized, and in the first example, the exoplanet orbits two stars similar to the Sun. While the planet in the previous announcement (Kepler-16b, in September) was just outside its stellar habitable zone (HZ), Kepler-34b is a bit too close to its stars to be within the HZ. Welsh added that he and colleagues expect there to be millions more of these cases, where a planet orbits a double star, and that in the next few dozen discoveries he expects to find one in its system’s HZ.

At the same press conference, John Johnson of the Kepler team announced a planetary system containing three worlds smaller than Earth that orbit a red dwarf star about 13 percent the size of the Sun. The innermost planet orbits its star (KOI 961) in about 10.8 hours, and astronomers haven’t yet determined the orbital period of the other two planets, but they know both are less than two days.

After a third exoplanet announcement of an extrasolar dusty disk (with a ring system) more than 400 light-years away, Virginia Trimble, an astronomer and science historian at the University of California, Irvine, spoke about how astronomy is changing due to recent discoveries. (She specifically spoke of “paradigm shifts.” While at college, all freshmen were required to read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and so I felt that I really got what Trimble was saying.) 

Newly discovered Kepler-34b, shown in this illustration, orbits binary stars that are similar to the Sun. // Photo by David A. Aguilar (CfA)
While the topic of exoplanets seems to dominate this blog post, it certainly wasn’t the only research area discussed at today’s meeting. Steven Rodney of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, announced the discovery of the most distant type Ia supernova yet. It exploded when the universe was just about 4.2 billion years old, and its light has redshifted out of visible and into infrared due to the universe’s expansion. The star that evolved into this supernova was younger than the Sun is currently (which is about 4.5 billion years) when it exploded. Astronomers expect to find supernovae in data from when the universe was just 3 billion years old.

So those were some of the science highlights of my third full day at the AAS meeting in Austin, Texas. And today, I also finally got to enjoy some tasty Texas BBQ.

Read about my Tuesday at AAS and Monday at AAS here.

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