Tuesday, January 31, 2012

AAS Day 4

I had the best of intentions to get to Robert Kirshner's talk on "Exploding Stars and the Accelerating Universe" (an interesting topic to begin with, but I also know he's a good speaker) but I had to get gas and money before going in to the convention center so I didn't make it in time. The work he discussed is the research that led to the discovery of "Dark Energy" and was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. I knew that was research that would eventually be awarded a Nobel but what I wasn't sure of was how they were going to choose *who* to award given the large number of people who contributed to the discovery (a lot of projects are done by research teams). In the end it was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam G. Riess as team leaders. Hopefully someday I'll be seeing some of my co-workers getting that prize after figuring out what dark energy actually is with HETDEX!

I didn't have volunteer duty in the morning so I went to the "Solar System and Extrasolar Habitable Zones" session. Because the majority of planetary (in *our* solar system) research is presented at the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences and the American Geophysical Union meetings, there isn't usually that much of it at the AAS general meeting. (I really need to start trying to convince some of my co-workers that it's time for the DPS to come back to Austin - it's been here three times including the first unofficial one organized by Carl Sagan and Harlan Smith.)

The first talk from the session was about the Habitable Zone Gallery project that tracks the orbits of planets discovered around other stars and how they related to their parent star's habitable zone. There were also talks about the impact that formed the Moon, Kuiper Belt Objects, atmospheres of "Super-Earths" and Saturn's weird moon Iapetus.

I did another round of lunch and posters and grabbed stuff at some of the booths (including some interesting freebie journals) and then when to the NASA Town Hall. I went a little early, which turned out to be a good thing since it ended up packed. The first to speak was former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was just appointed as Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA (I wonder if that all fits on his business card?). Grunsfeld flew on five shuttle missions, including three Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions so he's another one of my heroes. :) He has a PhD in physics and has served as NASA Chief Scientist and as Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The second speaker was Dr. Paul Hertz, the new NASA Chief Scientist. Unfortunately I once again had a low laptop battery so I didn't take notes at this session either.

One of my co-workers was part of a session titled "Astronomers: Teach Climate Change" and I wish I could have attended it but I had to work at another session. I had a nice chat with him at lunch about the topic though and I was really pleased to hear that he's been incorporating climate change topics into his introductory astronomy classes at UT!

The session I was working was on Spiral Galaxies and it ran over, so I was a little late to the last talk I was working "Galaxy Formation Star-by-Star: the View from the Milky Way" by Kathryn Johnson. Thankfully they didn't really need much in the way of volunteer help!

Also today, the Kepler Mission team made even more great exoplanet announcements (there are always great press releases during these meetings and the exoplanet people really had some good ones this year!) including: NASA's Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets. So basically we're finding planets in habitable zones and finding Earth-sized planets so it is only a matter of time until we find the holy grail: an Earth-sized planet in a habitable zone around a Sun-like star. (If I was a betting person, I take a chance and say we'll find one before the end of the year.) More about exoplanets tomorrow!

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