Artist's impression of an exoplanet

Editor’s Note: This week we’re reporting on the virtual programming related to the canceled 239th AAS Meeting. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting and posting each day. Follow along here or at astrobites.com. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume on January 18.

Welcome to the Astrobites coverage of virtual events based around the canceled American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting! We will report on highlights from each day here, from AAS Press Conferences to grassroots astronomy community meet-ups. If you’d like to see more timely updates during the day, we encourage you to search the #aas239 hashtag on twitter. We’ll be posting once a day during the week, so be sure the visit the site often to catch all the news!

Press Conference: Exoplanets & Their Atmospheres (by Lili Alderson) 

Cold and Distant: Meet the Newest Brown Dwarf

This artist’s rendering of a brown dwarf shows bands of clouds in its atmosphere. [NASA/ESA/JPL]

Thursday morning’s press conference focused on brown dwarfs, exoplanets, and their atmospheres. Kicking off the session was Johanna Vos (American Museum of Natural History), who discussed recent work on the weather of young brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs, which are often called “failed stars,” aren’t massive enough to burn hydrogen, but have similar masses, temperatures, and compositions to large exoplanets. Young brown dwarfs are often very similar to directly imaged exoplanets, and so make great analogs. Using over 590 hours of Spitzer Space Telescope observations, Johanna and collaborators watched brown dwarfs rotate to look for variations in their brightness indicative of the presence of clouds like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot that reflect or absorb light. They found that younger brown dwarfs were more likely to show variations than older brown dwarfs, and that the variations were more extreme, possibly due to the fact that brown dwarfs become more compact as they get older, changing the atmosphere. These observations will help improve models of the atmospheres of directly imaged planets, which will be important when JWST observes these planets. Press Release

An artists impression of XO-3b

Artists’s impression of the internal heating of XO-3b, along with its elliptical orbit. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)]

Next, graduate student Lisa Dang (McGill University) presented results from a study of XO-3b, a hot Jupiter exoplanet in an eccentric orbit, which is in the process of migrating towards a more circular one! The eccentric orbit means XO-3b has very strong seasonal variations, with its “winter” lasting twice as long as its “summer.” Using Spitzer to observe the planet as it traveled around its star, Lisa and her team measured XO-3b’s phase curve, which allows the wind speeds and temperature variations to be studied throughout the seasons. The team found that XO-3b has excess heat that cannot be explained by seasonal changes alone, and, using Gaia data, found that the planet was puffier than expected. Both of these findings indicate that the planet is experiencing internal heating, which could be due to tidal heating from the forces the XO-3b experiences as it migrates to a circular orbit. NASA JPL Press Release | McGill U. Press Release | U. Montreal Press Release

Illustration of the TESS satellite in front of the distant Sun.

With the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), we can explore not only distant planetary systems, but also our own. [NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab]

Up next with the discovery of three new exoplanets was Samuel Grunblatt (American Museum of Natural History and the Flatiron Institute). All of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) planets in this presentation are orbiting evolved stars (those which have moved away from the main sequence and are giants or sub-giants) and, given their short orbits, are some of the hottest planets known to exist around evolved stars! The first planet, TOI-2669b, could potentially be in an eccentric orbit, which would be unusual for its short period, while the second, TOI-2337b, has an extremely high density and will likely be consumed by its host star sooner than any other known planet. Perhaps the most interesting, TOI-4329b, is the best planet orbiting an evolved star for atmospheric characterization, and it would be a great target for JWST to help understand how exoplanets can end up in orbits like these. Keck Observatory Press Release | U. Hawaiʻi Press Release

Illustration of the “super Neptune” TOI-674 b.

Illustration of the “super Neptune” TOI-674 b. [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Graduate student Yoni Brande (University of Kansas) then presented the tentative detection of water vapor in the atmosphere of a super-Neptune exoplanet, TOI-674b. With a mass 23x that of Earth and an orbital period of less than 2 days, TOI-674b lies in the Neptune Desert, making it one of few known Neptunian planets orbiting close to their stars. Yoni and collaborators made use of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to look at the planet as it transited its star in the infrared and search for wavelength-dependent changes in the planet’s apparent size caused by its atmosphere. They found that the atmospheric transmission spectrum can be best explained by the presence of water vapor, making TOI-674b one of a very small number of Neptune-like planets to have evidence of water! Press Release

The night sky from a rocky planet is shown, with a large streak of white light reaching up into the sky from the horizon

An artist’s impression of the detected zodiacal light on Kepler-69c. [SHAO/Yue Xu]

Finally, Jian Ge (Shanghai Astronomical Observatory) discussed the detection of zodiacal dust in three Kepler systems. Joined in the press conference by high school students and collaborators Amanda Hao and Justin Hou, Jian explained how his team wanted to look for light scattered by dust from asteroids and comets around systems with potentially habitable exoplanets, like the solar system’s zodiacal dust cloud as seen from Earth. Using data from a host of all-sky surveys, they found an excess of infrared radiation around Kepler-69, Kepler-1229, and Kepler-395, all of which host planets in the habitable zone. They also found that the dust had temperatures around 400K, hotter than in the solar system, suggesting that the dust is likely located closer to the stars of these systems than in our own solar system. Press Release
YouTube recording

Press Conference: Intriguing Stars & Citizen Discoveries (by Graham Doskoch)


Artist’s impression of the roiling surface and strong stellar winds of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star. [ESO/L. Calçada]

The final press conference of the week combined unconventional techniques with unusual objects. The first speaker was Andrea Dupree (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian), who summarized our understanding of the Great Dimming exhibited by Betelgeuse between December 2019 and February 2020. The red supergiant interrupted its normal 400-day cycle of minor dimming and brightening by dropping roughly one magnitude in optical light. Archival observations taken earlier in 2019 by the Hubble Space Telescope, coupled with later measurements, indicate that this was the result of a large mass ejection and dramatic outflow in the star’s atmosphere. The resulting dust scattered and absorbed Betelgeuse’s light, making it appear dimmer. It’s quite possible that Betelgeuse and other massive stars near the end of their lives have previously undergone similar episodes.

flaring star

A flare erupts from a young red dwarf star in this artist’s illustration. [David A. Aguilar (CfA)]

The next presentation pivoted from one of the brightest stars in the sky to some of the dimmest: red dwarfs. Scott Engle (Villanova University) presented the results of a long study of M-type dwarf stars aimed at improving our understanding of their evolution and characteristics. Since red dwarfs are dim and age slowly, this has historically been a challenge — and an important problem for astronomers testing evolutionary codes. Using years of data on red dwarfs in binary systems from the 1.3-meter robotic telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the team found that the stars fell into two groups: the more massive “early” red dwarfs of spectral types M0 to M2, and the less massive “late” red dwarfs of spectral types M2.5 to M6. The groups exhibited different starspot patterns and obeyed different sets of changes in X-ray and ultraviolet activity with age.

Artist's impression of an exoplanet

An artist’s impression of the Jovian exoplanet TOI-2180 b. This planet has the longest orbit of any planet discovered by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) so far — and it’s a “cool” 170℉. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt]

The second half of the session was dedicated to discoveries made or enabled by citizen astronomers. Paul Dalba (University of California, Riverside) announced the detection of a Jupiter-mass giant planet, TIO-2180b, which has a wide orbit around a bright star. It was first discovered as a single, long transit in data from TESS by the Visual Survey Group, an organization of citizen scientists who search for exoplanet candidates that might be missed by algorithms. Follow-up observations by Dalba and colleagues using the Lick Observatory provided more information on its properties. While a massive effort by the team and citizen astronomers at 14 sites over three continents was unable to detect the second predicted transit, they plan to try again in February when TIO-2180b is next expected to transit. UC Riverside Press Release | NASA Press Release | U. New Mexico Press Release

images of the brown dwarf binary pair

WISE (left) and Dark Energy Survey (right) images of the binary system. [WISE/DES/Softich et al.]

Undergraduate Emma Softich (Arizona State University) presented a truly unique find. Using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and working in conjunction with the Backyard Worlds citizen science program, she discovered a binary brown dwarf with the largest known separation of its kind. CWISE J014611.20-050850.0AB consists of an L4-type brown dwarf 72 times the mass of Jupiter and an L8-type brown dwarf 66 times the mass of Jupiter, orbiting each other at around 129 astronomical units. Although the system is expected to stay bound for several billion years, it’s surprising that it survived efforts to tear it apart by neighboring stars near its birthplace. Lying only 135 light-years from Earth, CWISE J014611.20 raises an interesting question: how many systems like it are out there? Press Release

A selection of 24 galaxies analyzed by the Galaxy Zoo project to search for blue star-forming clumps

A selection of 24 star-forming galaxies analyzed by volunteers from the Galaxy Zoo: Clump Scout project. Some blue star-forming clumps are quite bright, while others are harder to detect. Click to enlarge. [Nico Adams]

The session concluded with a trip through cosmic time guided by graduate student Nico Adams (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities). Adams presented the results of the Galaxy Zoo: Clump Scout project, which gathered information on blue “giant star-forming clumps” in galaxies in the modern universe. There are two proposed methods for their formation: the in situ model, where turbulence within the galaxy governs their formation and evolution, and the ex situ model, where they form externally via galaxy mergers. While these clumps have been studied in distant galaxies in the early universe, their properties later on were not well-known. High-redshift galaxies show “clumpy fractions” — the fraction of galaxies with clumps — around 60%. The Galaxy Zoo: Clump Scout project enlisted volunteers to identify clumps in tens of thousands of modern-day galaxies and used the resulting 7,000 clumps in 10,000 of those galaxies to find that the modern-day clumpy fraction is only 2-3%. This provides evidence that clumps form in situ, from clouds of gas within a galaxy, since turbulence has gone down throughout cosmic time but merger rates have stayed flatter. If the ex situ model was correct, merger rates would have needed to drop to explain the relative lack of clumps in the local universe. Press Release

Live-tweeting by Graham Doskoch
YouTube recording

CHAMPs Early Career Researcher Highlight Seminar (by Macy Huston)

When the AAS 239 meeting was canceled, many were disappointed to lose the opportunity to present their research. Immediately, astronomers began planning events to try to fill that void. Not long after, the CHAMPs (Consortium on Habitability and Atmospheres of M-dwarf Planets) collaboration announced their Exoplanet Early Career Highlight Seminar, a two-day event where those with canceled talks could gather and discuss their work.

champs logoDr. Erin May, the postdoc who leads the organization of the new CHAMPs seminar series, emphasized the importance of focusing on early career researchers for whom conferences and networking are especially important. She tweeted, “While this can’t fully replicate the lost networking, we hope it takes some of the pain away.” The idea for this event had been in Erin and others’ minds before the AAS 239 cancellation as an alternative for those who didn’t feel comfortable making the trip in person. When COVID spiked and AAS 239 cancellation became a likely scenario, the planning process launched. Despite only having a couple weeks over the holidays to put it together, the organizers hit only a few technical snags along the way.

Almost 60 abstracts were submitted for the seminar, and the organizers were able to accept 47, 10 of which were dissertation talks, where soon-to-be PhD recipients were given a bit more time to present a fuller story of their work. Three of these non-dissertation talks were from current Astrobites authors: Ali Crisp, Macy Huston, and Yoni Brande!

The event was held January 13-14, 2022 and consisted of four sessions:

  1. Transits, Radial Velocities, and Direct Imaging
  2. Interstellar Objects, Terrestrial Planets, Biosignatures and Habitability
  3. Atmospheres (Exoplanets and Brown Dwarfs)
  4. Disks, Planet Formation, and Star-Planet Interactions

Subsections of these sessions were each moderated by an early career researcher who spoke at the event. Recordings of Day 1 are available here, and Day 2’s will be posted on the same YouTube channel shortly.

In addition to the talks and Q&A sessions held on Zoom, a Slack workspace was created for the event for extending discussions and networking. The #random channel provided entertainment and social interaction during the event, primarily being devoted to pet photos, including some friendly competition between dog and cat people, as well as some unique pets like frogs, hedgehogs, and even donkeys!

Overall, over 200 astronomers registered for the event, and at the point of peak attendance, over 100 people were present! The organizers were thrilled with the positive response to the event and hopeful that speakers were able to reach even more people than they would have at in-person AAS 239.

illustration of local bubble

Editor’s Note: This week we’re reporting on the virtual programming related to the canceled 239th AAS Meeting. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting and posting each day. Follow along here or at astrobites.com. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume on January 18.

Welcome to the Astrobites coverage of virtual events based around the cancelled American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting! We will report on highlights from each day here, from AAS Press Conferences to grassroots astronomy community meet-ups. If you’d like to see more timely updates during the day, we encourage you to search the #aas239 hashtag on twitter. We’ll be posting once a day during the week, so be sure the visit the site often to catch all the news! 

NSF/AST Community Webinar (by Catherine Manea)

The first event of the day was the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences (NSF/AST) Community Webinar, a town hall-style event led and moderated by Prof. Debra Fischer, Prof. James Neff, Dr. Ashley VanderLey, and Donna O’Malley. The focus of this webinar was to provide updates on the NSF/AST’s existing and upcoming programs, grants, and fellowships, with particular focus on the recommendations of the Astro2020 Decadal Survey.

Fischer began the webinar by introducing the organization and highlighting its original guiding mission: “to advance the understanding of the universe, to promote US scientific leadership, to build a diverse workforce of scientists and engineers, and to enhance the lives of our citizens.” She highlighted some relevant and important recommendations from the Decadal Survey, namely to:

  • “augment and protect individual investigator grants”
  • “build opportunities for diversity in the workforce”
  • “increase transparency [in budgets and proposal statistics]”
  • “reduce the carbon footprint associated with research.”

In summary, “fund people and develop the workforce,” remarked Fischer, a principle that aligns with many of the existing NSF/AST initiatives supporting students, post-docs, and early-career faculty from under-represented and minoritized groups. In addition, Fischer highlights that it is important to ensure that the astronomy community is developing astronomers with flexible, adaptable skills that they can take outside of academia, should they so choose. Fischer next summarized and provided updates on the various ongoing NSF/AST-funded programs and facilities (such as CAREER, REU, PAARE, Mid-Scale Innovations Program, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, Green Bank Observatory, and Arecibo, among many others).

Some updates included that construction on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) on Haleakalā Crater, in Maui, HI is complete, and DKIST is now in operation. Fischer emphasized that DKIST is “the largest and most powerful solar observatory on our planet” and will transform the field of multi-messenger astrophysics. DKIST will provide astronomers with the first in-depth, high-resolution look at the Sun’s magnetic fields, opening the door to a better understanding of the effects of magnetism on both the structure of the Sun’s surface and life on Earth.

Fischer also updated attendees on the current status of the decommissioned and dearly missed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. After two breaks in the cables stabilizing the radio receiver, the NSF decided to decommission the instrument in 2020 and began the process of demolishing it. Fischer announced that the emergency cleanup team has now “safely removed approximately 14,000 damaged panels, or 35% of the reflector area” of the instrument. In addition, the team repaired several hundreds of feet of concrete rim wall, installing organic erosion control measures (coconut fiber matting and seeding) that encourage native vegetation growth.

Neff followed with an update on recent and upcoming NSF/AST-funded programs, including various fellowships for astronomers at all career stages. Neff highlighted that Partnerships in Astronomy & Astrophysics Research and Education (PAARE) in particular is looking for applications, with a proposal deadline of February 7th. PAARE is a program that seeks to form partnerships between the NSF and various institutions to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment in astronomy research and education.

Artist's impression of Earth surrounded by a swarm of satellites. In the bottom left corner of this image, there is an example of a satellite-streaked CCD optical image.

A satellite-streaked optical CCD image, an example of the negative effect that the growing population of low-Earth-orbit satellites have on astronomical science, against a background of an artist’s impression of a satellite-swarmed Earth, something that is a growing reality. [NSF/Ashley VanderLey; ESA]

VanderLey finished off the presentation portion of the webinar with a summary of the NSF’s recent activities related to new satellites. The growing number of satellites in low-Earth orbits is a major concern for astronomers worldwide. Current projections suggest that the number of satellites circling Earth will exceed 50,000 by 2028!  VanderLay emphasizes that building telescopes in remote locations is no longer sufficient to prevent interference. The NSF is thus advocating for international recommendations and regulations on satellite design to minimize interference with astronomical observing. Many satellite-producing companies, such as SpaceX and Amazon, are beginning to take into account the concerns of the astronomy community. For example, Amazon’s Kuiper satellite will be designed with a dimming visor to minimize its intensity. Vanderlay notes that she is “very excited to see the movement” of these companies in alignment with the needs of the astronomical community and hopes that more companies will sign on to work with the astronomical community to mitigate satellite interference.

The event ended with questions from the audience. One question arose highlighting concerns for the high NSF budget dedicated to upcoming facilities, something that could risk funding for individual grants. Fischer assured attendees that the NSF/AST’s top priority will be individual grants and increasing the availability of individual funding gradually, in line with the recommendations of the Decadal Survey. To round off the event, Neff emphasized that “everything will be guided by Astro2020 Decadal Survey.”

Live-tweeting by Catherine Manea

Press Conference: Evolving Stars & Their Activity (by Macy Huston and Huei Sears)

photograph of an open star cluster

The star cluster Messier 67. [Jim Mazur]

Today’s first press conference focused on post-main sequence stars. First, graduate student Andrew Nine (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed blue lurkers in M67 and their white-dwarf companions. Classic blue stragglers are bluer and brighter than the main-sequence turnoff of a cluster, thought to form when stars merge or transfer mass. Blue lurkers, on the other hand, are stars on the main sequence that rotate at anomalously fast rates, corresponding to very young gyrochronological ages. Eleven of these were discovered on the main sequence of M67 as part of the ongoing WIYN Open Cluster Study (WOCS), eight of them residing in binary systems. Andrew’s team observed these eight binary blue lurkers with the Hubble Space Telescope. The team detected two white dwarf companions based on their far-ultraviolet flux out of a sample of eight blue lurkers, or 25%, which fits expectations from simulations. It is plausible that the blue lurkers are the products of mass transfer and are low-luminosity analogues to the classical blue stragglers. Press Release

photograph of the SOAR telescope

The Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope was used to determine some of the properties of this strange object. [CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Fuentes]

Next, Samuel Swihart (Naval Research Laboratory) presented a unique binary system containing a gamma-ray-bright neutron star and a very low-mass proto-white dwarf. Most stars are born in binary systems. The more massive star eventually goes supernova and sometimes leaves behind a spinning neutron star (pulsar), which gradually loses energy over time. A millisecond pulsar can form through a “recycling” process, where the companion star expands and its material accretes onto the neutron star, speeding up its rotation. Most binary milisecond pulsars have distant white-dwarf companions, while some have short periods where the companion is being consumed. Millisecond pulsar 4FGL J1 120.0-2204 (shortened to J1120) is a gamma-ray source that has an X-ray and optical counterpart. So, what is it? Spectroscopy with the NOIRLab SOAR telescope reveals a slowly contracting hot object, the precursor to an extremely low-mass white dwarf, orbiting an unseen companion. J1120 is the first system ever discovered in the penultimate phase of the millisecond pulsar recycling process. Press Release

Kepler K2 Light Curve of V2487 Oph, showing dramatic brief increases in brightness, with consistent lengths of about an hour and roughly a day between them and varying brightnesses

Kepler K2 light curve of V2487 Oph. [Bradley Shaefer]

The final presentation today came from Bradley Schaefer (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge), who discussed the recurrent nova V2487 Ophiuchi’s extreme superflares. V2487 Oph, which erupted in 1900 and 1998, is one of just 10 recurrent novae known in the Milky Way. The Kepler Space Telescope revealed that this source has extreme superflares roughly once per day lasting for about an hour, with very high energy levels of 20 Mega-Carringtons per flare. (A “Carrington” is equal to the amount of energy released in the Carrington event, the largest coronal mass ejection  in recorded history.)  In 1989, Brad discovered and named superflares — stellar flares with energy greater than 100 Carringtons and durations on the order of hours. These events are caused by the reconnection of twisted magnetic field lines and occur in all types of normal stars, including those like the Sun. The radiation from superflares can kill all unprotected life and destroy ozone layers, allowing in sterilizing ultraviolet light, meaning that they make planets around stars extremely uninhabitable. V2487 Oph is the most extreme superflare star, with the most frequent flares, >10x more energy per flare than any other superflare star, and >100,000x the yearly energy budget. How these flares can be so powerful poses an interesting challenge for theorists. Press Release

Live-tweeting by Huei Sears
YouTube recording

Press Conference: Mapping Local Structure & More Evolving Stars (by Zili Shen)

illustration of the local bubble

The Local Bubble, with the Sun near the center, and the Ophiuchis, Pipe, Lupus, Corona Australis, Musca, and Chamaeleon, and Taurus star-forming regions shown. Click to enlarge. [Catherine Zucker]

The second press conference today is about Mapping Local Structure & More Evolving Stars. We start with Catherine Zucker (Space Telescope Science Institute and Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian). She tells us the ultimate origin story by explaining how all nearby star formation (within ~500 light-years of our Sun) began. Her team uses Gaia data to retrace the star formation history around the solar neighborhood. Here’s how it happened: around 14 million years ago, a chain of supernovae blew out the 1,000-light-year-wide Local Bubble. The shockwaves from the supernovae piled up ambient gas into an extended shell and triggered star formation. Nearby stars were born on the surface of the Local Bubble, riding outward as it expanded. Our Sun was 1,000 light-years away when the bubble first started forming. But about 5 million years ago, the Sun’s path through the galaxy took it into the bubble and now we happen to be near the bubble’s center. The next step is to search for more supernovae-driven bubbles and study how they interact in the Milky Way. CfA Press Release | Hubble Press Release | Project Website


Artist’s conception of the heliosphere with the important structures and boundaries labeled. [NASA/Goddard/Walt Feimer]

Zooming back one million years in the history of our Sun, Seth Redfield (Wesleyan University) presents a project led by Hunter Vannier, who is now a graduate student at Purdue University. They are particularly interested in the interstellar medium, the stuff between stars inside a galaxy. All stars expel particles into the interstellar medium, and in the case of our Sun, the particle stream carves out our little region in the interstellar medium called the heliosphere. Since the Earth sits inside the heliosphere, the cosmic rays we receive depend on the conditions of the interstellar medium outside. Seth pointed the Hubble Space Telescope in the direction that the Sun came from, using it as a rear-view mirror. Since the interstellar medium is too diffuse to be directly imaged, they use absorption spectroscopy to locate the gas clouds that the Sun traveled through in the last one million years. They reconstructed the Sun’s path through these clouds and found that we are currently departing the Local Interstellar Cloud. This technique can help scientists look in our future direction and generate a space weather forecast. Press Release

Our next topic is Wolf-Rayet stars. Avishay Gal-Yam (Weizmann Institute of Science) was the first to observe a new class of supernovae from exploding Wolf-Rayet stars. Wolf-Rayet stars are the most massive stars we know of, and the nuclear fusion that goes on in their core produces layers of successively heavier elements. The outer layers get blown out by intense radiation pressure and this gives Wolf-Rayet stars a distinctive signature in their spectra. Although these stars are predicted to explode at the end of their lives, no carbon-oxygen Wolf-Rayet SN had been observed. Avishay’s team took a spectrum of a supernova on the Gemini telescope three days after it was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility survey, and they discovered spectral lines that match what you expect for an exploding Wolf-Rayet star! The newly discovered supernova type Icn is illustrated below. Weizmann Inst. Press Release | ZTF Press Release

Newly discovered supernova type Icn compared to known types.

Illustration of the composition of a Wolf-Rayet star as a supernova progenitor. Right panel: The newly discovered type Icn supernovae from carbon and oxygen rich Wolf-Rayet stars. Bottom: spectra of the supernova remnants. [Avishay Gal-Yam]

Continuing with the exciting discovery of Wolf-Rayet supernova, Daniel Perley (Liverpool John Moores University) found a Wolf-Rayet star that exploded and likely became a black hole. His team found another supernova of a Wolf-Rayet star and obtained both the distance and a spectrum using the Liverpool Telescope. In this field, speed is key because the supernova remnants expand and fade quickly. Daniel’s team managed to get the Hubble Space Telescope to observe this source. They followed the explosion site for months, and saw that it eventually faded beyond detection. The initial glow was from shockwave-compressed gas, but once the shockwave passed, the star collapsed into a black hole and there was no more radiation to be observed. Daniel says that this type of supernova could be very common, but they have not been observed until now because they only glow for a very short time. Press Release

Live-tweeting by Zili Shen
YouTube recording

Centaurus A

Editor’s Note: This week we’re reporting on the virtual programming related to the canceled 239th AAS Meeting. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting and posting each day. Follow along here or at astrobites.com. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume on January 18.

Welcome to the Astrobites coverage of virtual events based around the cancelled American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting! We will report on highlights from each day here, from AAS Press Conferences to grassroots astronomy community meet-ups. If you’d like to see more timely updates during the day, we encourage you to search the #aas239 hashtag on twitter. We’ll be posting once a day during the week, so be sure the visit the site often to catch all the news! 

Press Conference: SDSS: Passing the Torch to Phase 5 (by Katya Gozman) 

zoom screenshot

Screenshot of all the panelists for this press conference.

Today’s first press conference focused on the culmination of the last 12 years of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), one of the largest imaging and spectroscopic endeavours, and also the beginning of a new phase of the survey, SDSS-V! The latest SDSS data release, DR17, alone brought us an overwhelming 245 terabytes of data, almost half of the entire 407 terabytes collected in all the previous releases combined. Though this might seem small compared to 500 petabytes of data the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) expects to collect, this is quite astounding for the amount of resources that SDSS had available. Over the years, it has acquired more than 5 million spectra of stars and galaxies, helping us understand the history of the Milky Way and other galaxies. SDSS is special in that it doesn’t just observe one object at a time. Instead, telescopes are fitted with plug plates containing holes drilled into them at the exact positions of any objects the SDSS team wants to observe. These holes are plugged in with fiber optical cables that lead back to a spectrograph slit, enabling us to take spectra of hundreds of objects at once!

The first speaker, Rachael Beaton (Princeton University and Carnegie Observatories), told us about the APOGEE survey, one of the three SDSS surveys discussed in today’s conference. She explained that APOGEE is unique because it takes data in infrared light, which lets us look through the opaque, interstellar dust that permeates parts of the Milky Way and see stars embedded in these regions. This survey uses telescopes in both New Mexico and Chile, letting us observe the entire Milky Way by gathering spectra from both hemispheres, and has looked at over 2,000 individual fields in the sky. Rachael pointed out that the nearly 2.6 million spectra taken for APOGEE have allowed us to classify and map out the motions of stars and measure the abundances of 20 different elements in stars, six of which are the most common elements in the human body. One of the most exciting moments was seeing the final map of all the stars that APOGEE has observed. APOGEE’s coverage extends not only out to the outskirts of the Milky Way, a region that we call the galactic halo, but also far beyond — including satellite galaxies like the Magellanic Clouds and parts of the Andromeda Galaxy! All of this stellar data (no pun intended) lets us learn all about the ages of stars, what they’re made of, and how they move around our galaxy. Press Release

An overview of SDSS-IV programs. There are three circles at the bottom half of the image, each with APOGEE-2, eBOSS, an MaNGA on them, respectively.

An overview of the three main surveys of SDSS-IV, which ran for 6 years from 2014-2020. We are looking forward to the next era of SDSS-V! [SDSS Collaboration]

mosaic of a spiral galaxy, made up of many small images of other galaxies

An image of the Whirlpool galaxy (M51); an iconic nearby galaxy, made using a Mosaic of images of one thousand galaxies, ten percent of the entire in the MaNGA sample. Click to enlarge. [Karen Masters and the SDSS collaboration]

The second speaker was Karen Masters (Haverford College), who talked about the MaNGA survey. While APOGEE focused on our Milky Way, MaNGA zooms out to map other nearby galaxies. It takes multiple spectra of a galaxy at once, giving us data for different regions of the galaxy and acting as a sort of barcode for a galaxy. Spectra give us information on the ages, chemistry, and motion of stars, sources of ionized gas, and more. All the spectra for a given galaxy are then packed into a datacube, giving us a little “book of information” about its different parts. Using SDSS’s plug plates, MaNGA can observe 17 galaxies at once, with tens of spectra per galaxy! The MaNGA team also released its Stellar Library, a collection of spectra of individual stars in different galaxies. If any of this sounds really cool, you can access any of the MaNGA data using Marvin, a freely accessible web tool and python module that lets you explore any galaxy in the survey and its corresponding spectra. Press Release

The last speaker of the event was Juna Kollmeier (University of Toronto), who ended by looking toward the future with the newest Sloan program, SDSS-V (see this astrobite about the SDSS-V paper!). This next generation survey will focus on three different programs:

  1. the Milky Way Mapper, which will probe the formation and evolution of our galaxy,
  2. The Local Volume Mapper, which will look at the interplay between stars and the interstellar medium and explore star formation, and
  3. the Black Hole mapper, which will let us understand how both large and small black holes grow over time.

Instead of using plug plates, which have to be drilled months in advance and take a lot of time to change out during a night of observation, SDSS-V will pioneer the use of robotic positioning, which lets them change the configuration of fiber optic cables in a flash, making it easy to change targets at the last minute. Even though the pandemic slowed down the development, the SDSS-V team found creative ways to power through and turn their initial whiteboard drawings and models into the final products freshly installed at the Apache Point Observatory. Press Release

Over the last decade, SDSS has enabled astronomers to better understand the colors of galaxies and asteroseismology, find differing stellar populations in our galaxy and previously undiscovered star systems, and really map out the large scale structure of the universe. But the speakers also emphasized one of the most important advances SDSS has made for the astronomical community: making data publicly available and accessible so that both astronomers and the public can learn how to use the data and help advance our understanding of the universe!

Live-tweeting by Huei Sears
YouTube Recording

NASA Astrophysics Town Hall (by Ali Crisp)

This NASA Town Hall was led by Astrophysics Division director Dr. Paul Hertz with assistance from the division’s chief scientist, Dr. Eric Smith. The slides and Q&A from the Town Hall are publicly available, and can be found here and here.

NASA town hall title slide, with an artistic rendition of planetsThe purpose of the Town Hall was primarily to provide updates on NASA’s plans from the Astro2020 decadal survey results and to give a brief overview of what they will be doing this year. Updates on suborbital and CubeSat launches were first on the agenda, with Dr. Hertz discussing the four balloon launches and five sounding rocket launches that will take place this year. He then gave a brief update on the CUTE satellite and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). A large portion of the mission updates section was spent on JWST, with discussion of the launch and deployment led by Dr. Smith. As of the Town Hall, the launch and deployment of JWST have both been successful, current telemetry data is nominal, and the commissioning steps can safely begin.

Much of the Town Hall was devoted to outlining the programs and initiatives NASA will be starting based on the results of Astro2020. Key points and initiatives from the briefing are:

  • NASA is committed to improving inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) in the field, and has started (or will be starting) several related initiatives, including increasing funding to bridge programs and early career scientists, instituting double-blind peer review for proposals, and commissioning a separate study on making the proposal system more equitable through the National Academies.
  • Work is currently being done to broaden technological development and prepare for future large surveys and major observatories. Future proposal calls will emphasize priority areas that complement the recommendations of the decadal survey.
  • Rather than coming up with the next big thing for after the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, NASA will be focusing its efforts on making sure the technology and finances are in place for its development, as well as for other currently planned missions.

There were many other smaller updates during the Town Hall, including how open source science initiatives are progressing and that the review of the Hubble Fellowship Program has been completed. Overall, there seem to be big plans for the coming year in NASA Astrophysics! A recording of the Town Hall will be posted later, so be on the lookout if you’re interested in hearing more. In addition to the live Q&A today, answers to all questions will be posted on the Q&A portal during the coming days.

Live-tweeting by Ali Crisp

Press Conference: Stellar Nurseries, Clusters & Streams (by Macy Huston)

zoom screenshot

Screenshot of all the panelists for this press conference.

The second press conference today focused on star formation and clusters. Graduate student Zhuo Chen (University of California, Los Angeles) presented recent work on the star-formation history of the central region of our galaxy. The Milky Way’s central nuclear star cluster is the densest stellar region in our galaxy, also containing a 4 million solar-mass supermassive black hole. How did these stars get here, and how do they interact with the supermassive black hole? Chen and collaborators study star-formation history by measuring the abundances of metals (elements heavier than helium) in stars. They found that the nuclear star cluster consists of two populations of stars: 92% metal-rich stars that are 4 billion years old and 8% metal-poor stars between 1 and 4 billion years old. The former’s age estimate is significantly lower than the previous estimate of 7 billion years. This challenges prior theories about the cluster’s formation, including mutual evolution with the supermassive black hole and inner bulge, as well as the globular cluster infalling scenario. More accurate knowledge of the age of these stars allows for more accurate predictions of the numbers of compact objects and rate of gravitational-wave mergers. Future work on faint stars with JWST and on modelling metal-rich stars will further improve our understanding of this region’s star-formation history.

x-ray image of the Milky Way center, featuring bright emission at the center and two lobes of gas to either side,

Next-generation telescopes will help astronomers get to know our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. The center of our galaxy is shown here in an X-ray image, constructed from 164 hours of observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. [NASA/CXC/MIT/F.K.Baganoff et al.]

Next, Shuo Zhang (Bard College) discussed how giant molecular clouds can reveal details of the past of our galaxy’s central supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. At the center of our galaxy lies a 330-light-year elliptical and twisted ring of dense molecular clouds, containing 5-10% of the galaxy’s gas. This cool gas shows bright, variable X-ray emission. Gas this cool couldn’t produce X-rays on its own, so where does the emission come from? A likely explanation is that this gas is reflecting incoming emission from a previously more energetic Sagittarius A*. Observations suggest that Sagittarius A*’s X-ray activity has been decreasing over the past few centuries. Zhang and collaborators focused on two molecular clouds in this work. The first is Sagittarius B2, which shows a peak outburst about 110 years ago and decay over the past two decades. The second is Bridge, which shows brightening over the past 20 years. So, what does the difference between these two clouds tell us? Rough estimates of molecular cloud distance estimate that Sagittarius B2 is closer to us, relative to the Galactic center, while Bridge is further. This would mean that they are reflecting different points in Sagittarius A*’s past. Sagittarius B2 shows a ~100-year-old outburst, while Bridge’s is ~400 years old. Ultimately, the question remains of whether these clouds really tell Sagittarius A*’s stories at different points in time, and, more importantly, what caused these outbursts. Press Release

Photo of a dense and bright spherical cluster of stars.

Hubble image of the globular cluster M92. [ESA/Hubble]

Next, graduate student Allison Hughes (University of Arizona) presented a search for globular clusters in the Centaurus A (CenA) Galaxy. CenA is an elliptical galaxy ~12 million light-years from us that shows evidence of substantial galactic merger events. While we can’t resolve individual stars at this distance, we can study its globular clusters — densely packed clusters containing hundreds of thousands or millions of stars. Globular clusters are tightly packed enough to remain intact when galaxies merge, allowing for the study of stars in these complex merged systems. CenA has many hundreds of globular clusters, as well as halo substructure at large distances. They used PISCeS (the Panoramic Imaging Survey of Centaurus and Sculptor) and Gaia observations, as well as the NOAO source catalog, to identify globular cluster candidates. Spectroscopic follow-up of these candidates is underway to confirm their association with CenA, and over 100 have already been confirmed! These globular clusters and their velocities will be used to uncover CenA’s formation history, and this method can be extended to more galaxies in the future, such as Sculptor, M81, and M91. Press Release

S5's stellar streams projected onto a map of the sky

S5’s streams on a map of the sky. The green points show their main targets, and the purple are other objects of interest. [Ting Li]

The final speaker for today’s press conference was Ting Li (University of Toronto), who presented the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey (S5)’s progress so far. This project, which began in 2018 and is still ongoing, has so far performed a homogeneous study of 12 stellar streams, seeking to reveal the “feeding habits” of the Milky Way, as well as its dark matter distribution. When neighboring satellite galaxies and stellar clusters get torn apart by the Milky Way’s gravity, they turn into elongated stellar “streams.” S5 studies these streams’ 3D positions, velocities, and chemistry in order to characterize where they came from and how they were gravitationally perturbed. The kinematics of these stellar streams are being analyzed in order to map the distribution of dark matter in the Milky Way. Chicago Press Release | U. Toronto Press Release | Lowell Observatory Press Release

Live-tweeting by Macy Huston
YouTube recording

Astronomy, A Gathering (a.k.a. Nay-A-S) (by Briley Lewis)

Upon the announcement of the cancellation of AAS 239’s in-person meeting, many astronomers took to Twitter to grieve the loss of yet another chance to see their collaborators, colleagues, and friends. It’s now been two full years since we were able to gather in person, and although safety for all community members is the priority, it’s still a loss worth acknowledging. Networking, community, and informal interactions are the aspects of in-person conferences that many find most valuable, yet they are often the aspects left out when events abruptly transition to virtual platforms.

James Davenport, Research Assistant Professor at University of Washington, took it upon himself to create a space this week where astronomers could hopefully find some of the community they were missing with the absence of AAS 239. “I heard so many people sad about losing the opportunity to socialize and network, especially students who are trying to get a foothold into this career…” he said. “I felt like it was worth my time to try and help out.” And thus, Astronomy: A Gathering (a.k.a. Nay-A-S) was born!

Screenshot of Nay-A-S virtual environment on Gather.Town

A screenshot of the Nay-A-S virtual environment on Gather.Town, showing my avatar in the space with different rooms and other attendees. [Briley Lewis]

This informal networking space, hosted on Gather.Town, was open all day on Tuesday for folks to meander, chat, and hang out. It was an experiment of a virtual professional gathering, hopefully paving the way for future uses of online spaces to create inclusive and welcoming environments. Gather.Town is an interactive platform, where you create an avatar and actually walk around inside a virtual world. Davenport had the Nay-A-S space set up with cafes, private rooms for meetings, a plenary hall, poster spaces, and even a snowy outdoors. There were no organized sessions or activities planned, since this was a small grassroots effort, but instead the space was kept open for whatever the community wanted to use it for. As Davenport says, “I think this is a good demo of what this kind of event can be, and I hope AAS will be interested in a poster event or something similar in the next couple months!”

Community members expressed excitement for the event on Twitter, grateful for a dedicated space for networking and gathering. Mark Dodici, an undergraduate at Princeton, said, “AAS 239 was going to be my first conference, and I was really looking forward to taking some time to just take it all in and connect with the community. I’m hoping that this event will give at least a little taste of that.” Laura Lopez, part of the AAS 239 Cancellation Task Force, said she planned to attend to get ideas for how to run virtual events. Others, like Mallory Molina, were hoping that this gathering could help with networking for those on the job market. Many were just hoping for some human connection; as Astrobiter and West Virginia University graduate student Graham Doskoch said, “For me, it’s about the human connection and really feeling a part of the astronomy community…there’s a difference between staying up-to-date on astronomy and actually feeling like an astronomer, particularly for those of us early in grad school and not in huge departments.”

Here’s hoping today’s event opens the doors for more robust, enjoyable, and accessible networking and community events for the future! And no matter what, thank you to everyone trying to find ways for us to build community, especially in these challenging times.

optical image of spiral galaxy NGC 7331

Editor’s Note: This week we’re reporting on the virtual programming related to the canceled 239th AAS Meeting. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting and posting each day. Follow along here or at astrobites.com. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume on January 18.

Welcome to the Astrobites coverage of virtual events based around the canceled American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting! We will report on highlights from each day here, from AAS Press Conferences to grassroots astronomy community meet-ups. If you’d like to see more timely updates during the day, we encourage you to search the #aas239 hashtag on twitter. We’ll be posting once a day during the week, so be sure the visit the site often to catch all the news! 

Press Conference: Galaxies & Quasars (by Graham Doskoch) 

The first press conference of AAS 239 focused on galaxies and quasars, exploring topics ranging from the early universe to galaxies very similar to the present-day Milky Way. Jessica Sutter (Universities Space Research Association and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) presented mapping of ionized carbon in NGC 7331, a “twin” of the Milky Way. This [CII] emission provides a way for the interstellar medium to cool, balancing heating from hot, young O and B stars. However, the [CII] signal is affected by the region of origin, meaning that the inclination of the galaxy in question can impact observations. Press release

Next to speak was graduate student Yuanze Luo (Johns Hopkins University), who discussed the mechanisms behind quenching. “Quenching” refers to processes where a galaxy’s star formation rate decreases, largely due to a loss of interstellar gas. A central supermassive black hole may be the culprit in some cases. Luo’s team used multiwavelength observations to map the structure of the galaxy IC 860. The results showed that the galaxy had a third spiral arm, hot blue stars and potentially a central active galactic nucleus, all of which indicate it was transitioning toward quenching. The team also observed outflows, but they were too weak to actually provide a way for the galaxy to lose gas.

composite image showing Markarian 462's location relative to the group of galaxies

Though the dwarf galaxy Markarian 462 is smaller than the other galaxies in this image, it was the unlikely source of copious amounts of X-rays. Click to enlarge. [X-ray: NASA/CXC/Dartmouth Coll./J. Parker & R. Hickox; Optical/IR: Pan-STARRS]

The final two speakers delved into a long-standing question in early-universe cosmology: How do supermassive black holes (SMBHs) form? Ryan Hickox (Dartmouth College) discussed several proposed mechanisms for their formation, including a massive, galaxy-wide collapse of gas reservoirs termed “direct collapse.” Since it’s difficult to probe galaxies in the early universe, astronomers take an alternative approach to testing these theories: looking at nearby dwarf galaxies, whose SMBHs would likely not have changed much over billions of years, making them time capsules. The study successfully found evidence for a SMBH in one galaxy, Markarian 462. X-ray observations showed few low-energy X-rays, indicating that the source was being obscured. This suggests that existing methods of finding SMBHs in dwarf galaxies may be missing most of the population. Press release

Mallory Molina (Montana State University) explored the problem from a different angle. They used a novel method of distinguishing SMBH emission from surrounding stellar emission: a spectral line known as the coronal [Fe X] line from outflows surrounding the black hole. As discussed in an Astrobite from last fall, they searched through 40,000 candidates and found SMBHs in 81 of them — all in blue galaxies with young stars. This is unlike most of the known dwarf galaxies hosting SMBHs, which are largely without star formation. This means that the coronal [Fe X] line provides a way to search for a previously unknown population of SMBHs in star-forming dwarf galaxies. Press release

Live-tweeting of the session by Graham Doskoch.

Press Conference: Black Holes & Transient Phenomena (by Briley Lewis)

photograph of rocket launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [NASA/Joel Kowsky]

Monday afternoon’s press conference focused on some of the highest-energy happenings of the universe: a new space telescope devoted to observing extreme phenomena in X-rays, stars getting ripped apart by black holes, and an extraordinarily bright supernova. Martin Weisskopf (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) kicked off the press conference by giving an overview of the recently launched Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission. This new space telescope is the first dedicated to X-ray polarimetry, meaning that it looks at high energy wavelengths of light and how those light waves are oriented. It launched last December on a Falcon 9 rocket, and the IXPE team just successfully completed deploying and commissioning the telescope. IXPE has plans to look at a whole range of astrophysical phenomena: active galactic nuclei, microquasars, radio pulsars, pulsar wind nebulae, supernova remnants, magnetars, accreting X-ray pulsars, and more! The nominal mission is ~2 years, but the spacecraft has fuel to maintain its orbit for ~18 years — plenty of time for lots of fun science!

tidal disruption event

Illustration of a tidal disruption event, in which a star is torn apart by a black hole’s gravitational forces and its material falls onto the black hole. [NASA/CXC/M. Weiss]

Vikram Ravi (Caltech) started off the next talk by telling us all about tidal disruption events, where a star is spaghettified and ripped apart by a black hole, triggering huge outflow jets. These jets and the infalling matter produce radio emissions, which can hopefully be detected in the Very Large Array’s sky survey (VLASS). Graduate student Jean Somalwar (Caltech) went on to describe multiple new detections of possible tidal disruption events seen in VLASS data. One particularly exciting observation, known as VT J0243, is the brightest of these events discovered in VLASS data. This category of objects is still quite new, since the first radio tidal disruption event discovery was published in 2019. Since then, over 30 more have been discovered and Ravi and Somalwar expect even more with further investigation of the VLASS data. Their big takeaway from this talk? We need to study more radio flares at the centers of galaxies to understand the triggers and how to distinguish tidal disruption events! Press release

Finally, graduate student Yuhan Yao (Caltech) rounded out the press conference by telling us about yet another exciting new class of objects: Cow-like supernovae. These are named after AT2018cow (the “Cow supernova”), an exceptionally bright optical supernova discovered a few years ago, which was 10 times brighter than a typical supernova and seen across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Only four similar objects, known as Cow-like supernovae, were previously known — but today, Yao announced a new one!

Three paneled image showing a normal supernova, cow-like event, and a diagram of how rare cow-like events are.

Artist’s renditions of normal and cow-like supernovae, describing the difference where Cow-like Events have active central engines. A diagram on the right details how rare Cow-like events are. [Yuhan Yao/Bill Paxton/NRAO/AUI/NSF]

AT2020mrf was recently discovered in the X-ray using the Russian/German SRG telescope, and it was also observed in the optical by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar and in the radio by the Very Large Array. A month after the supernova’s explosion, it was 10,000 times brighter than a typical supernova and 20 times brighter than the Cow supernova. A year after the star’s death, it was still observed to be quite bright in the X-ray by Chandra — 200 times brighter than the Cow at the same point after its death! AT2020mrf also shows fast variability in its X-ray emission, indicating that these Cow-like supernovae produce an active central “engine” (e.g., an accreting black hole or rapidly spinning neutron star) to supply all these X-rays. AT2020mrf and these “cow-like events” are an exciting new class of transients and a window into the birth of compact objects! Press release

Live-tweeting of the session by Briley Lewis.

Banner announcing the press conferences associated with the 239th meeting of the American Astronomical Society

Although we’re no longer gathering in person in Salt Lake City for AAS 239, we’ll still be showcasing exciting new research results in our virtual press program! Press conferences will take place at 10:15 am and 2:15 pm MST (17:15 and 21:15 UTC/GMT) on 10, 12, and 13 January, and at 12:15 pm and 2:15 pm MST (19:15 and 21:15 UTC/GMT) on 11 January.

All press conferences will be viewable live on the AAS Press Office YouTube channel at the times listed below. Can’t make it? Recordings will be uploaded to YouTube and summaries of each day’s press proceedings written by a team of Astrobites authors will be posted here and on astrobites.org. We hope to see you there!

In addition to the press conferences, the NASA Astrophysics Town Hall, the National Science Foundation Division of Astronomical Sciences Town Hall, various Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) science talks and webinars, and other programming will be proceeding as planned. You can find the schedule for these events and instructions for joining virtually here.

Press Conference Schedule

Monday, 10 January 2022, 10:15 am MST

Galaxies & Quasars

A Map of the Molecular Ring and Arms of a Spiral Galaxy
Jessica Sutter (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy)

A Multiwavelength View of IC 860: What Is in Action Inside Quenching Galaxies?
Yuanze Luo (Johns Hopkins University)

Uncovering a Hidden Mini-Monster: A Heavily Obscured Active Galactic Nucleus in a Dwarf Star-Forming Galaxy
Ryan Hickox (Dartmouth College)

A New Population of Supermassive Black Holes in Dwarf Galaxies
Mallory Molina (Montana State University)

Monday, 10 January 2022, 2:15 pm MST

Black Holes & Transient Phenomena

NASA’s Newest X-Ray Eyes: An Update on the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)
Martin C. Weisskopf (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

Tidal Disruption Events in the Very Large Array Sky Survey
Vikram Ravi & Jean Somalwar (California Institute of Technology)

The Most X-Ray Luminous Fast Blue Optical Transient
Yuhan Yao (California Institute of Technology)

Tuesday, 11 January 2022, 12:15 pm MST

SDSS: Passing the Torch to Phase 5

Almost a Million Stars and Counting: Mapping the History of the Milky Way with APOGEE and Beyond
Rachael Beaton (Princeton University)

Galaxies, Assemble: MaNGA Team Releases Largest-Ever Collection of 3D Maps of Nearby Galaxies
Karen Masters (Haverford College)

SDSS-V Robots See First Light
Juna Kollmeier (Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Toronto)

Tuesday, 11 January 2022, 2:15 pm MST

Stellar Nurseries, Clusters & Streams

A New Window on Star Formation History at the Galactic Center
Zhuo Chen (University of California, Los Angeles)

Giant Molecular Clouds: Storytellers of the Galactic Center’s History in the Past Few Hundred Years
Shuo Zhang (Bard College)

Identifying Hidden Globular Clusters in the Centaurus A Galaxy
Allison Hughes (University of Arizona)

Twelve for Dinner: The Milky Way’s Feeding Habits Shine a Light on Dark Matter
Ting Li (University of Toronto)

Wednesday, 12 January 2022, 10:15 am MST

Evolving Stars & Their Activity

Detection of White Dwarf Companions to Blue Lurkers in Star Cluster M67
Andrew Nine (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

A Unique Gamma-Ray-Bright Neutron Star Binary with an Extremely Low Mass Proto-White Dwarf
Samuel Swihart (Naval Research Laboratory)

Discovery of Extreme Superflares on the Recurrent Nova V2487 Ophiuchi
Bradley Schaefer (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge)

Wednesday, 12 January 2022, 2:15 pm MST

Mapping Local Structure & More Evolving Stars

1,000-Light-Year-Wide Bubble Surrounding Earth is Source of All Nearby, Young Stars
Catherine Zucker (Space Telescope Science Institute & Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

Mapping the Interstellar Medium in Our Rear-View Mirror: The Million Year History of the Heliosphere
Seth Redfield (Wesleyan University)

Wolf-Rayet Stars Exploding as Supernovae
Avishay Gal-Yam (Weizmann Institute of Science)

The Fates of Wolf-Rayet Stars, the Strangest Supernovae, and the Origins of Massive Black Holes
Daniel Perley (Liverpool John Moores University)

Thursday, 13 January 2022, 10:15 am MST

Exoplanets & Their Atmospheres

Revealing the Stormy, Turbulent Nature of Giant Exoplanet Analogs
Johanna Vos (American Museum of Natural History)

Observing Seasons on a Migrating Giant Exoplanet with the Retired Spitzer Space Telescope
Lisa Dang (McGill University)

The Hottest Jupiters Orbiting Evolved Stars
Samuel Grunblatt (American Museum of Natural History / Flatiron Institute)

A Mirage or an Oasis? A Tentative Detection of Water Vapor in an Exoplanet Atmosphere
Jonathan Brande & Ian Crossfield (University of Kansas)

Discovery of Debris Disks in Kepler Habitable Small Planet Candidates
Amanda Hao (Aragon High School) & Jian Ge (Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Thursday, 13 January 2022, 2:15 pm MST

Intriguing Stars & Citizen Discoveries

Betelgeuse, the Great Dimming: Before and After
Andrea Dupree (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian)

Living with a Red Dwarf: Improved Relationships for M Dwarfs
Scott Engle (Villanova University)

Discovery of a TESS Giant Planet on a 261-Day Orbit Enabled by Citizen Science
Paul Dalba (University of California Riverside)

Discovery of the Widest Known Brown Dwarf Binary
Emma Softich (Arizona State University) & Adam Schneider (United States Naval Observatory, Flagstaff Station; George Mason University)

Galaxy Zoo Clump Scout: Surveying the Local Universe for Giant Star-Forming Clumps
Nico Adams (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)


Headshot of Haley Wahl

Haley Wahl (West Virginia University) has been selected as our AAS Media Fellow for 2021–2022.

In 2017 we announced a new AAS-sponsored program for graduate students: the AAS Media Fellowship. This quarter-time opportunity is intended for current graduate students in the astronomical sciences who wish to cultivate their science-communication skills.

We are pleased to announce that Haley Wahl, an astronomy graduate student at West Virginia University (WVU), has been selected as our AAS Media Fellow for 2021–2022.

Haley majored in physics at the University of Vermont and is now a fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU, where she works with Maura McLaughlin to understand how interstellar gas and dust twist the light emitted by pulsars — dense, rapidly spinning objects with strong magnetic fields.

A cookie with a swirled design, representing a pulsar, lies on top of a sheet of baking paper. Fresh raspberries are arrayed in two triangles, one at each pole of the "pulsar," to represent beamed emission.

A Viennese whirl takes the shape of a pulsar with beamed emission. Pulsar science has never been so appealing! [Haley Wahl]

In addition to her research, Haley is an avid science communicator. She writes and edits for Astrobites, a graduate-student-run astronomy research blog, shares pulsar science through her weekly #PulsarFriday Twitter threads, and combines pulsar science with baking experiments on her blog, Pulsars and Profiteroles. She also served as the co-coordinator of the WVU planetarium from 2018 to 2020.

As the AAS Media Fellow, Haley will write about new astronomy research for AAS Nova and assist AAS Press Officer Susanna Kohler in managing the Society’s press activities. She’ll also be helping to host press conferences at upcoming AAS meetings, so please say hello if you’re attending the January AAS meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah!

As we welcome Haley to the team, we’re also saying goodbye to our 2019–2021 AAS Media Fellow, Tarini Konchady. Tarini is continuing her graduate research on Mira variable stars at Texas A&M University while delving into the world of science policy as a 2021 Lloyd V. Berkner Space Policy Intern in Washington, DC. Berkner Interns undertake projects in civil space research policy to gain experience in science policy and enhance the projects of the Space Studies Board.

Please join us in welcoming Haley to the team and wishing Tarini the best in all her future endeavors!

A volcanic eruption appears on the limb of Jupiter's moon Io

Editor’s Note: This week we’re at the 53rd meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting. You can read the recaps here or at astrobites.com. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume next week.

Wednesday Press Conference (by Macy Huston)

Tight Twins in the Kuiper Belt
Hal Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory)

Dr. Hal Weaver began today’s press conference with a presentation about the New Horizons spacecraft’s exploration of the Kuiper belt. The spacecraft has made close passes by many objects to obtain unprecedented resolution in the outer solar system. The excellent resolution was achieved by the New Horizons instrument LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) taking many long exposures, and then sending cropped images back to Earth for careful combination. In the Kuiper belt, New Horizons is searching for “tight twins:” pairs of similarly sized, close-together objects that cannot be resolved from Earth. In the LORRI images, two cold classical Kuiper belt objects (CCKBOs), 2011 JY31 and 2014 OS393, appear as elongated spots rather than round objects like stars. Analysis revealed that each of these images is much better fit by a 2-body model than by a single body. A third CCKBO studied by New Horizons, Arrakoth (formerly nicknamed Ultima Thule), is a contact binary, composed of two adjoined planetesimals. With two of the three observed CCKBOs being disconnected binaries, this may tell us something important about planetesimal formation in the outer solar system. The high binary fraction supports a model in which low-velocity collisions of pebbles in the protosolar disk produce larger clouds of pebbles that collapse, producing binary pairs, where some systems remain separated while others merge into contact binaries.

Active Asteroids Citizen Science
Colin Chandler (Northern Arizona University)

Next, PhD candidate Colin Chandler presented the Active Asteroids citizen science project, which leverages volunteers to identify asteroids with comet-like features such as a tail. These objects can teach us about where water is in the solar system now and where Earth’s water may have come from, but fewer than 30 of them have been discovered so far. With 16 million asteroid images from across the sky, finding active asteroids is a real “needle in a haystack” search. With way too much data for a small team to sift through, citizen science allows the work to be crowd-sourced from the public worldwide, with no special requirements for participants. Machine learning is not yet viable for this project, but the citizen science results may be able to train future algorithms. On the Active Asteroids website, volunteers are shown an image centered on an asteroid and asked whether it shows a tail or dust cloud. Tests run with over 1,000 vetted examples showed that participants can effectively identify these features. The first result from the project is the discovery of a new active asteroid, Jupiter-family comet 2015 TC1, with a “coma” — a surrounding fuzzy cloud of dust and/or gas. Want to try your hand at identifying active asteroids? The project is live at http://activeasteroids.net. Press release

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Team Discovers Why Bennu and Asteroids Like It Have Surprisingly Rugged Surfaces
Saverio Cambioni (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Grayscale image of a rocky surface.

Asteroid Bennu has a complex and rugged surface, as evidenced by this up-close image from OSIRIS-REx of its surface regolith. [NASA]

The final presentation of this session was given by Dr. Saverio Cambioni about the OSIRIS-REx mission to collect and return a sample of material from the asteroid Bennu. The mission expected to find fine-grained materials comprising Bennu, but instead they found big rocks. They measured the surface temperature of multiple asteroids with both fine-grained materials and large rocks, and they used machine learning algorithms to explore each component’s contributions to temperature and the materials’ resistance to temperature change. Their results showed a correlation where temperature change resistance decreases with an increasing volume of voids, or higher porosity. Few fine-grained materials were found in the more porous rocks, like those making up Bennu. Fine grains are formed when low-porosity rocks are excavated and fragmented by impacts. High-porosity rocks behave differently — they compact on impact rather than fragment, so they do not produce these fine materials. Bennu and another near-Earth asteroid Ryugu are both composed of high-porosity rocks and lack fine-grained materials. Conversely, the asteroid Itokawa was found to be made up of low-porosity rocks and have abundant fine-grained materials. These are representative of the two most common asteroid types: carbonaceous, which are highly porous and lack fine grains, and S-type, which are made of low-porosity rocks and abundant in fine-grained material. As OSIRIS-REx makes its way back toward Earth with its successfully gathered sample, this experience and new discovery can better prepare scientists for future sample-return missions. The diversity of asteroids can reveal a great deal about how the solar system was formed. Press release 1, press release 2, press release 3

Mission Updates from Hubble, Webb, and Roman (by Macy Huston)

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

Dr. Carol Christian, the HST outreach project scientist at Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), presented a history of HST’s work in planetary science throughout its 31-year life so far. Solar system science has been very popular with the public, with ~1 billion viewers/readers of the related Hubble press releases. In the most recent observation cycle (Cycle 29), 6.3% of orbits were devoted to solar system science, including the study of an interstellar comet, Europa’s surface, and a broken piece of one of Neptune’s moons. The most recent solar system press releases have covered Jupiter’s shrinking red spot, the disintegrating ATLAS comet, evidence of water vapor in Ganymede’s atmosphere, and a captured comet among the trojan asteroids. The long timescale over which HST has observed the skies has allowed for great time-domain study of planets, allowing us to learn a lot about weather on Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Neptune. HST has also made valuable contributions to the field of exoplanets, studying unique planets like GJ 1132b, which lost its first atmosphere and gained a new one; PDS 70b, which is Jupiter-sized and gaining mass from a dust disk; and HD 206906, which is on an extended orbit analogous to the hypothetical Planet 9 in our solar system. HST observed the dramatic outburst and dimming of Betelgeuse in 2019, which was initially considered a possible supernova precursor, but ultimately the dimming was most likely caused by a dust cloud from the outburst. On a larger scale, HST has observed an interesting supernova imposter — a lensed supernova, which is expected to reappear in 2037 — and the physics of the universe’s expansion.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Dr. Stefanie Milam, the JWST deputy project scientist for planetary science, presented the mission’s current status and near-future plans. The science and operations center are wrapping up their preparations and launch-day rehearsals are underway. The telescope is currently on a boat heading from California to French Guiana, where it is scheduled to launch on December 18, 2021. After roughly a month of travel to its home at the L2 lagrange point, it will begin a very long and detailed commissioning process. Science operations are expected to begin roughly 6 months after launch, during the summer of 2022. About 7% of the total Cycle 1 science time (including Early Release Science, Guaranteed Time Observations, and General Observers) will be devoted to solar system science. Researchers are working on a large point spread function and scattered-light model for observations of big and bright objects like the giant solar system planets. The telescope will initially be able to track moving targets up to 30 milliarcseconds per second, and achieving faster rates is a goal for Cycle 2. The community can get involved via data analysis tutorials, access nonproprietary data from Cycle 1 Guaranteed Time Observations and Early Release Science programs, and get ready for Cycle 2 with new tools and targets available.

Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (Roman)

Dr. Bryan Holler gave an update on NASA’s next flagship after JWST, the Roman Space Telescope, which is anticipated to launch in the mid-2020s. Roman is nearing the end of Phase C (hardware construction) and will soon be entering Phase D (testing). The mission fully passed its recent critical design review. The telescope will be placed at the L2 lagrange point with a nominal 5-year mission with the possibility of a 5-year extension. It will house two instruments: the Wide Field Instrument (WFI) and the Coronagraph Instrument (CGI). The WFI has 18 detectors, with 300 megapixels and 0.11 arcsecond/pixel sampling, which is comparable to JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Its field of view is much larger than those of Hubble and JWST at roughly a quarter of a square degree, which makes it great for large surveys. The imager will contain wide-band filters across the visible through near-IR range. Roman will produce massive amounts of data — roughly 1.4 terabytes per day — which will all be non-proprietary. The CGI is a “technology demonstration” and will be used for three of the first 18 months in space. It will perform direct imaging and spectroscopy of planets a billion times fainter than their host star. 75% of the 5-year primary mission is currently defined for WFI surveys: a high-galactic-latitude wide-area survey, a high-galactic-latitude time-domain survey, and a galactic bulge time-domain survey. The mission is currently seeking input from the community on whether to preselect an astrophysics survey to execute within the first 2 years, as well as ideas for what that survey might be. These may be submitted until October 22, 2021. There will also be a NASA ROSES-21 proposal call in the near future for Roman planning, regarding key project teams, CGI observation planning, and data preparation. A couple of unique opportunities this telescope presents for planetary science are a deep search of the outer solar system for inner Oort cloud objects, a search for small and irregular satellites around the giant planets, and a survey of Earth’s L4 and L5 Lagrange points.

Venus Plenary (by Sasha Warren)

The meeting’s Venus Plenary, led by moderators Dr. Candace Gray and Dr. Nancy Chanover, set the scene for the upcoming “decade of Venus” with an update from the only mission still active at Venus and presentations on the plans for three of the Venus missions scheduled to launch in about 10 years’ time. 


Artist’s impression of the Akatsuki spacecraft at Venus. [JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita]

Dr. Takeshi Imamura, project scientist of JAXA’s Akatsuki (Venus Climate Orbiter), shared just a few of the most exciting results to come out of the mission in recent years. By monitoring Venus’s cloud tops, the Akatsuki team has measured the speeds and directions of Venus’s winds, revealing a change from winds blowing polewards during the day to equatorwards during the night. Akatsuki cannot see beneath the top of the clouds on Venus, but how the behaviour of winds changes over time can be used to understand what is happening at deeper levels in the atmosphere because the effects of changes in solar radiation between day and night (thermal tides) trigger atmospheric disturbances with different wavelengths. Akatsuki’s most exciting observation so far might be atmospheric waves caused by interactions between Venus’s mountain tops and its thick, super-rotating atmosphere, which may give clues about how wind patterns change with altitude and — most importantly — how Venus’s surface affects the air above it. Looking forward, the Akatsuki team is hoping that future missions will provide more data about atmosphere–surface interactions on Venus — for example, imagery of wind-blown streaks on the surface like those observed on Mars.

Lead scientist Dr. Richard Ghail described ESA’s planned EnVision Venus Orbiter mission, a holistic mission designed to help understand how Venus works as a planet. EnVision’s wide variety of instruments will characterize Venus’s surface mineralogy and texture (e.g. is Venus’s surface all smooth lava flows, volcanic boulders, or covered in wind-blown sand dunes?), image the subsurface down to a depth of hundreds of meters to look at geologic history, monitor for plumes of water and sulphur dioxide gas to track down active volcanoes, and much more! Dr. Ghail described how EnVision builds upon lessons learned from Mars exploration, and how the mission will complement NASA’s missions. EnVision will launch after DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, so there will be more data available to plan which areas of Venus to focus on to follow up on the most interesting observations from VERITAS’s planned global dataset, and the highly detailed local data DAVINCI+ will gather in Alpha Regio.

Dr. Stephanie Getty, Deputy Principal Investigator of NASA’s DAVINCI+ mission, continued the discussion about the future of Venus exploration by describing how DAVINCI+ will help answer the question “was Venus ever an ocean world?” During its descent through Venus’s atmosphere in the early 2030s, the probe will measure the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen — a clue to how much water Venus has lost to space over time — as well as noble gas abundances, which can be used to extract details of the planet’s formation and its history of volcanic eruptions. It will also image the surface and composition of a potentially ancient region on Venus made up of tessera terrain. The DAVINCI+ team is currently debating whether to expand the capabilities of their spectrometer to address the controversial detection of phosphine in 2020, which could be a signature of life on rocky planets. In the Q&A, Dr. Getty described plans for the unlikely (but not impossible!) event of the descent probe surviving its impact with Venus, which might provide 18 minutes of science at the surface. She also mentioned that the mission will involve more than 120 STEAM students over its lifetime, including those at underserved minority institutions, with the goal of “bringing up the next generation of Venus enthusiasts.”

Left panel: Simulated image of Hawaii with huge square pixels, labeled "Magellan-like topographic resolution." Right panel: Detailed image of Hawaii labeled "VERITAS-like topographic resolution."

Simulated topography of Hawaii with Magellan-like resolution and VERITAS-like resolution, which will be 100 times better! [Dr. Sue Smrekar, NASA.]

Representing NASA’s VERITAS mission, Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Sue Smrekar spoke about the clues VERITAS will look for on Venus that might be fingerprints of past (and present) tectonic activity and the presence of water. By measuring the global composition of Venus’s surface for the first time, as well as gravity signatures of features like tesserae, rifts, and coronae, one of VERITAS’s goals is to look for evidence of subduction — a process that might have kick-started plate tectonics on Earth. Dr. Smrekar showed the impact of the factor of 100 resolution improvement that VERITAS will provide over Magellan’s topography data by simulating what Hawaii would look like viewed by each of the spacecraft. Like EnVision, VERITAS will also be searching for plumes of gas released by volcanoes — but this is only one of “a zillion different connections” between the missions featured in the plenary session. VERITAS’s global surface temperature measurements will help inform existing atmospheric models based on Akatsuki’s observations, and global rock composition measurements will put DAVINCI+’s up-close observations into a wider planetary context, making sure that the upcoming decade of Venus exploration will be much more than just the sum of its parts!

Thursday Press Conference (by Macy Huston)

Evaluation of Bioburden Requirements for Mars Missions
Amanda Hendrix (Planetary Science Institute)

NASA currently has strict requirements for sterilization processes to reduce the “bioburden” of spacecraft before they travel to Mars, given the risk of contamination by terrestrial life and interference with the search for indigenous life on the planet. The Committee on Planetary Protection within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report with the goal of determining whether sterilization processes are necessary for missions that are not searching for life if they’re entering zones that are known to be uninhabitable. To calculate the risk involved, one must consider the possibility of microbial contamination: how it might be delivered, survive, proliferate, and be transported. This also brings into consideration the factors that affect microbial survival and growth: temperature, water, atmosphere, nutrients, energy, and wind. This includes a discussion about the viability of Mars as a research target for astrobiology. The discovery of life on Mars would be monumental, so it is essential to be able to distinguish indigenous Mars life from terrestrial contamination. Microbial life would be more likely to survive in some regions of Mars than others. Avoiding areas with ice or subsurface access (e.g., through caves) can help mitigate this risk. The report concluded that bioburden requirements may be relaxed for missions meeting both of the following conditions: 

  1. No subsurface activity planned at all OR nothing deeper than 1 m in a landing site with no detected ice
  2. Remaining a safe distance from astrobiologically interesting sites (e.g. caves).

Some sterilization requirements would still be in place for missions to these regions, but they would not need to be as restrictive as the current regulations. They recommend a risk-management approach and considering the possibility of in-situ bioburden reduction on Mars as a complementary measure. Overall, the decision-making process for these safety measures would be to identify the risks, assess their likelihood and consequences, rate the risks, and identify mitigation measures for those above some set threshold. Press release 1, press release 2

The NASA Lucy Mission and Its Newest Target, Queta
Simone Marchi (Southwest Research Institute)
Illustration of a space probe with two sets of circular solar panels in the foreground of a small, rocky body.

Illustration of NASA’s Lucy space probe visiting asteroids in our solar system. [NASA/SwRI]

For the last press conference presentation of DPS 53, Dr. Simone Marchi gave an update on the soon-to-launch Lucy mission. This will be the first mission to the trojan asteroids (those that orbit the Sun in two groups on either side of Jupiter in its orbit), visiting seven asteroids with a variety of spectral types. The trojan asteroids are a diverse population that present the opportunity to constrain models of giant planet migration with a better understanding of these planetesimals that may have formed in different parts of the solar system’s protoplanetary disk. The Lucy spacecraft hosts five instruments that will work together to investigate the surface geology, surface color and composition, interiors, satellites, and rings of these asteroids. The mission recently gained a new target of opportunity when Hubble discovered that one of the original targets, Eurybates, has a small satellite called Queta.

Lucy will make a couple of loops through the inner solar system before heading to Jupiter’s L4 Lagrange point to visit its first set of asteroids. It will then pass through the inner solar system again and head to the L5 trojan asteroid group. It will have a chance to fly through the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter’s orbits on its way as well. Lucy is on track to embark on this long journey across 4 billion miles over twelve years on October 16, next week!

Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey Update (by Ali Crisp)

Every decade, NASA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) sponsor studies of different scientific communities to find out what their priorities should be for the coming years. The results of these studies are used to guide science funding and — more recently — diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives. In today’s session, Drs. Robin Canup (Southwest Research Institute), Phil Christensen (Arizona State University), and David Smith (NASEM) gave an overview of the status of the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023–2032 and did a Q&A with the community. The panel was moderated by Dr. Amy Mainzer (University of Arizona) and Dr. Diana Blaney (NASA Jet Propulsion Lab).

The study was performed by a steering committee of 19 people, co-chaired by Dr. Canup and Dr. Christensen, and six destination panels: Mercury and the Moon; Venus; Mars; small solar system bodies (i.e., asteroids); ocean worlds and dwarf planets; and giant planet systems. The survey has identified 12 priority science questions, organized by three different themes. The report will be finalized and sent to peer review in November 2021 and should be publicly available by late March 2022.

Overall, the panel was not allowed to give many specifics about the science question results due to the rules of the survey, but they emphasized two key points:

  • This year, they were asked to restructure the survey studies and write chapters around science goals, rather than around specific planetary bodies. They found that this structure allowed more cross-collaboration between subject panels, and they think it will make the report more useful to the planetary science community.
  • They chose committee members with diversity in mind, both in scientific expertise and social representation. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard), a leading expert in implicit biases, was included in the steering committee to ensure that the survey was conscious of DEIA principles. In addition to chapters addressing the key science questions, there will also be a “State of the Profession” chapter to inform the community of where it stands in regard to DEIA and offer suggestions for improvement.

Galilean Satellites Plenary (by Sabina Sagynbayeva)

Today’s Galilean Satellites Plenary was all about excitement and a hope of finding out more about famous but mysterious moons of Jupiter. This plenary was moderated by Dr. Diana Blaney and Dr. James Keane, both from JPL. Juno is the primary mission that has allowed us to learn more about the Galilean satellites. Its recent flybys gave us more insights about Ganymede, and now the researchers are very excited to see what the upcoming mission to Europa, Europa Clipper, will show us.


Image of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, taken by the Galileo spacecraft in 1997. [NASA/JPL/University of Arizona]

The first speaker, Dr. Julie Rathbun from Planetary Science Institute, talked about a very hot moon, Io. Io is a very interesting object due to its unusual volcanic activities. Primarily, Dr. Rathbun is interested in one of its volcanoes, Loki, which naturally reminds everyone of a famous Marvel villain. Maybe that is not a coincidence! The thing is, Loki is very different from any volcano we know by its size and activity. Why? Dr. Rathbun says that this is what they are trying to figure out! Remarkably, Loki is the largest volcano in the solar system; comparing it to Mars’s famous volcanoes, Dr. Rathbun says “Loki kicks Mars’s butt.” With the help of the Juno spacecraft, the team is planning to look at new images of Loki’s surface and compare them to the existing ones from the Voyager mission in order to find out more about this strange volcano.

The next speaker was Dr. Candice Hansen from Planetary Science Institute. Dr. Hansen also acknowledges the work that’s been done by Juno spacecraft. Over the past four years the orbit of Juno has evolved, which provided opportunities to get close to Jupiter’s moons. Dr. Hansen’s team is mostly interested in Ganymede, the largest of the moons. Juno has recently collected astonishing and detailed images of Ganymede, including five visible light images acquired by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit and JunoCam with 1-2 km resolution. The detail and quality of these images surpass existing data used in previous maps of Ganymede.

Illustration of a spacecraft with solar panels flying over the surface of an icy body, with Jupiter visible in the background.

Illustration of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission flying over Jupiter’s icy moon. [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Now, it’s time for Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa! Dr. Kathleen Craft from Johns Hopkins University talked about the upcoming exciting missions to Europa. This satellite is very special, because it might actually contain life under its icy surface! The two missions that are going to investigate that are Europa Clipper and Europa Lander. They are basically going to dig through the crust to look at the moon’s chemistry and explore whether Europa may be habitable or not. Naturally, there is a concern that ice might be too hard to drill through. However, Dr. Craft mentioned that they are considering that, and JPL is making different samples of ice to test in preparation for the missions! In addition, Dr. Rathbun reminded us that one of the most exciting aspects of a mission is what you can’t predict — some time ago, Juno was as young as Europa Clipper is now and solely focused on Jupiter. It hadn’t even planned its flybys to the satellites, and now it has exceeded all expectations.

The last but definitely not least was Dr. Federico Tosi, who is working with the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument on Juno. JIRAM data reached an unprecedented resolution of about 0.3 km, about 2.5 American football fields in length. Infrared spectroscopic data helped researchers investigate Ganymede’s surface composition. Their data showed signs of mineral salts and organic compounds, which are interesting because this might be the reason they see different spectral signatures at different wavelengths.  Dr. Tosi also mentioned that their team prefers to observe the satellites from a safe distance to acquire data without applying too much engineering effort.

Galilean satellites contain so many mysteries, and we can’t wait to see what else they’re holding!

IDEA Plenary (by Briley Lewis)

SciAccess zoom shared slide saying "SciAccess, Advancing Disability Inclusion in Astronomy and STEM" "Anna Voelker, they them, SciAccess founder and executive director" "Caitlin O'Brien (she/her) student at the ohio state university"

Introducing SciAccess, an organization dedicated to advancing disability inclusion in astronomy and STEM, also the focus of this year’s DEI plenary. [Anna Voelker]

In the last plenary of the week, titled “SciAccess: Advancing Disability Inclusion in Astronomy and STEM”, speakers Anna Voelker and Caitlin O’Brien discussed this relatively new international organization, SciAccess, and provided recommendations for making future events more inclusive and accessible. The speakers led by example to make things accessible to those with visual impairments by explaining what they look like while introducing themselves.

SciAccess has many different initiatives for improving disability inclusion: a yearly conference that draws thousands of people from across the globe, a working group of professionals trying to improve accessibility in their institutions/communities, a mentorship program for blind and visually impaired high schoolers, and more. Bonus: If you’re presenting at AAS this coming January, you can get free registration to both their November virtual conference and their AAS workshop!

3D models of various space-related objects, including JWST, the solar system, and a galaxy.

3D models of various space-related objects, including JWST, the solar system, and a galaxy. [Anna Voelker]

They also have a very exciting event coming up in less than two weeks on October 17th: the first flight of Mission: AstroAccess, an initiative to pave the way for disabled astronauts. The goal is to show that disabled crewmembers are able to perform the tasks required of astronauts and demonstrate solutions to make microgravity more accessible. This Zero-G flight, featuring 12 “disability ambassadors”, is only the first flight in a series, hopefully culminating in an orbital spaceflight. Voelker contextualized this project with a story of the Gallaudet Eleven, a group of deaf men who worked with NASA on motion sickness studies in the early days of the space program. The research found that the deaf men were more resistant to motion sickness than hearing people, showing the natural strengths and assets of historically excluded disabled people. Although none of these men were offered a chance to go to space, SciAccess is now partnering with Gallaudet University on Mission: AstroAccess.

Voelker and O’Brien also offered a wide array of tips for organizing an accessible event, starting with physical accessibility. Make sure your venue and seating options are wheelchair accessible — a noted problem with star parties, since many of them take place on grass or on inaccessible trails. Uncomfortable conference chairs are another common offender; while they are an inconvenience to most people, they can be a real barrier for those with chronic pain. Conference social and networking events also often use high cocktail tables, which are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs or who cannot stand for long periods of time. It can also help blind and visually impaired people to offer a tactile or large print map or guide volunteers. Quiet rooms are another great option to offer, since they are beneficial for anyone with sensory processing needs or social anxiety.

Audience members holding a tactile star dome in a planetarium show for those with visual impairments.

Audience members holding a tactile star dome in a planetarium show for those with visual impairments. [Anna Volker]

Another consideration is communication accessibility. By making practices like captioning and ASL interpretation a default, more people will be able to attend without the barrier of making special requests. Braille and large print materials and slide descriptions may also be useful for visually impaired audiences, and color communication badges (recommended by autism experts, but also helpful for those with social anxiety) use green, yellow, and red to signify an individual’s willingness to socialize with new people or friends in conference settings. One of SciAccess’s particularly cool projects is making planetarium shows more accessible, by illuminating an ASL interpreter in red light (to preserve night vision) and providing tactile constellation domes.

Although it may seem like you need extravagant resources or fancy 3D printing to make these accessibility changes happen, Voelker reminded the audience that accessibility is a change in mindset and intention more than anything, and it will benefit everyone. The important thing is to be intentional about inclusive design from the start, with things such as pronouns on name tags as the default and ensuring diverse representation on panels.

As Voelker says, “By making spaces more inclusive, we’re not only welcoming people who have been traditionally excluded, but we’re making things better for everyone.”

If you want to learn more, you can join SciAccess’s email list or follow their Facebook page.

DPS 53: Days 1-2

Editor’s Note: This week we’re at the 53rd meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences. Along with a team of authors from Astrobites, we will be writing updates on selected events at the meeting. You can read the second and final recap here or at astrobites.com after the conclusion of the meeting. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume next week.

Monday Press Conference (by Macy Huston)

Recurrent Activity from a Main Belt Comet: Colin Chandler (Northern Arizona University)

The first speaker of the DPS 2021 press conference series was PhD candidate Colin Chandler, who described the recurrent activity of asteroid (248370) 2005 QN173 (QN from here on). “Active” asteroids are those that have comet-like features such as tails. They are valuable for studying where water in the solar system is now and where Earth’s water came from. The new active asteroid QN was discovered in the main asteroid belt in July 2021. Archival data from the Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile revealed that the asteroid had been active in the past in July 2016, roughly one orbital period ago. This is only the 8th known recurrently active asteroid, and the cause of the activity is thought to be ice sublimation. It’s considered a probable “main belt comet.” Press release

The Nucleus and Dust Tail of an Active Asteroid: Henry Hsieh (Planetary Science Institute)

The next speaker, Dr. Henry Hsieh, presented more information on the same QN object. Asteroids and comets are classically considered to be distinct objects. Asteroids are typically rocky, inert, and on relatively close-in circular orbits, whereas comets are typically icy, active, and on elongated orbits, spending most of their time far from the Sun. Hsieh reviewed the existence of active asteroids, which have only been recognized within the past 15 years and are not yet well understood. QN’s recent activity was discovered by the ATLAS survey telescope on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Follow-up efforts were coordinated among 5 telescopes on 3 continents, aiming to learn as much as possible about the object. In addition to these planned observations, the comet was serendipitously picked up by 4 additional telescopes, which allowed for the determination of the nucleus’s size and composition. They found that QN has a 2-mile-wide nucleus with a 450,000-mile-long and 900-mile-wide tail. The narrow tail indicates slow dust and gas release. Further study of the nucleus’s rotation will help determine whether fast rotation contributes to the activity caused at least partially by sublimation. Press release

More Evidence that Pluto’s Atmosphere is Freezing Out: Eliot Young (Southwest Research Institute)

Next, Dr. Eliot Young presented a study of Pluto’s atmosphere. Pluto gets very little sunlight at its orbit beyond 30 AU. Its tenuous atmosphere is supported by the vapor pressure of N2 ice, which is a very steep function of temperature. Pluto’s atmosphere gradually increased in size from 1989–2015, but it is expected to eventually “freeze out” and disappear as the dwarf planet moves farther from the Sun. Pluto passed in front of (occulted) a V=13 magnitude star in 2018, allowing for detailed study of its atmosphere. The light curve of the dwarf planet’s occultation event is affected by its atmospheric surface pressure and haze opacity. The previous trend in Pluto’s surface pressure predicted the 2018 value to be 14.4 microbar, but the measurement was 11.4 microbar, which is roughly equivalent to the 2015 value measured by New Horizons. This indicates that Pluto’s warming trend has ended, and its atmosphere may be headed towards freeze out. Previously, the haze opacity had correlated with the solar cycle, but this was found to be coincidental, as the drop in solar activity between 2015–2018 occurred alongside an increase in haze opacity. Press release

Telescopic and Lab Investigations of The Surfaces of Active and Cometary Near-Earth Objects: Theodore Kareta (University of Arizona)

The final presentation of this session was given by Dr. Teddy Kareta about comets and meteor showers. (3200) Phaethon is the origin of the Geminid meteor shower, but it is atypical of active comets. It is blue, stays relatively close to the Sun, and is not very active. Phaethon is thought to be related to a smaller object called (155140) 2005 UD — they have similar colors, orbits, low activity, and are associated with meteor showers. Observed in the near-infrared, however, the objects’ spectra are quite different from one another. A possible explanation is that they are made of the same material but have been heated to different extents. In order to test these conditions, the group built a new laboratory device to measure how a meteorite’s reflectivity changes in a near-vacuum at different temperatures. When heated to a temperature similar to Phaethon’s peak temperature, the laboratory spectra looked similar to Phaethon’s observed spectra. This was not the case for material heated to the temperature of 2005 UD, though. This suggests that the objects’ similarity in appearance is coincidental rather than indicative of a common origin.

Mars Plenary (by Sasha Warren)

This year’s Mars Plenary journeyed all the way from the Martian core to its upper atmosphere, providing updates on five ongoing missions including new results, technical challenges, and goals for future investigations. Summary lightning talks were followed by a Q&A session, moderated by Jennifer Hanley and Brian Jackson, that covered every topic from Mars’s formation and early history to Mars spacecraft design, making the most of the wide array of expertise brought by the five presenters.

Deputy Project Manager for Science for the Emirates HOPE mission Hessa Almatroushi shared stunning new images from the probe’s orbit insertion in February and detailed the suite of instruments that has since been monitoring the Mars atmosphere in the visible, ultraviolet, and infrared. Over the coming years, the mission will provide a global picture of how different atmospheric species — like hydrogen and oxygen — respond to changes in the time of day, season, solar activity, and Martian weather (especially dust storms!).

Shannon Curry, the new PI of NASA’s MAVEN mission, spoke about how the results from MAVEN so far can be used to calculate how much of Mars’s atmosphere has been lost over the past 3 billion years, and how important the effects of changing solar activity and dust storms are, particularly for the escape of water. The upcoming solar maximum in 2024 will provide an opportunity to measure atmospheric escape rates under the most extreme conditions yet as it will coincide with Mars’s dust storm season — and the MAVEN team can’t wait. From the Q&A session, it seems that there will be a lot of potential for MAVEN and the HOPE probe to work together to create a full picture of the Mars atmosphere from the surface to deep into space when this exciting season comes around.

Reporting results from closer to the surface, Matt Golombek from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory detailed the unprecedented success of the Ingenuity helicopter that arrived on Mars with the Perseverance rover. In just a few months, it has already flown 13 times — smashing the intended five technology demonstration flights — and is now being used to help plan the rover’s path across the Séítah region in Jezero Crater. Matt also dropped hints about the potential for future helicopter missions that could hop for hundreds of kilometers across the Mars surface at a fraction of the cost of a rover mission, with the potential to revolutionize how we explore the Red Planet! Kenneth Farley, lead project scientist for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, provided an update on the Perseverance mission so far, announcing a new paper confirming the hypothesis that the fan in Jezero Crater formed in an ancient lake environment. Not everything has been quite so straightforward, however, as the rocks that the rover has been driving across for nearly 2 km have been almost impossible to characterize because of their thick surface coating likely caused by millions of years of sandblasting by Martian dust and wind. Luckily, Perseverance has been able to scratch away some of this coating to reveal what look to be volcanic rocks beneath, possibly from lava flows. In addition to answering the question of what Jezero’s crater floor is made of (something that couldn’t be answered from orbital data alone!), these rocks also appear to have interacted with water at some time in their history. The exact minerals present — which are important for determining the temperature and chemical conditions that the rocks experienced — aren’t fully known yet but the Perseverance team plans to continue exposing fresh surfaces and measuring them with all the different tools it has available. Perhaps the most exciting part, though, is that these volcanic rocks represent the first of 40 samples that Perseverance will cache on Mars in anticipation of a future Mars Sample Return mission.

Bruce Banerdt took the conversation beneath the Martian surface, sharing the successes (and struggles) of the InSight mission, which has now achieved its primary science goal of revealing the interior structure of Mars. The biggest surprise is that Mars’s metallic core has a diameter almost 50 km larger than predicted, making it less dense than previously thought. This has triggered many new experimental and theoretical studies of the core’s elemental composition to try to match the new data. In the Q&A, Bruce shared his excitement that the mission was able to “break” something about our understanding of Mars, reminding the audience that it’s always most interesting, and most scientifically useful, for new data to disprove well-established theories.

If you’re attending DPS and missed this session, check the DPS 53 Slack workspace for summary slides from each of the presenters, and any ongoing discussion throughout the meeting. The full presentations and the plenary session recording can be found on the Monday tab of the Scientific Oral Sessions within the virtual meeting space.

Women in Planetary Sciences Discussion (by Kerry Hensley)

The hosts, Northern Arizona University graduate student Audrey Martin and SOFIA Associate Project Scientist Maggie McAdam, began by acknowledging what an intense and challenging year this has been — in the United States alone, we’ve experienced the continuation of a pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, wildfires and other extreme weather events driven by climate change, a contentious national election, an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, and continued violence perpetrated against members of the Black community. While scientists may like to think that these events are entirely separate from our work, it’s impossible to separate who we are as scientists from who we are as people. For scientists belonging to one or more communities historically impacted by racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, the challenges of the past year have magnified the impacts of inequality, both within planetary science and beyond the field.

The hosts reminded the audience that progress toward equity and justice is not linear and often proceeds in fits and starts. Many of the issues that existed 50 years ago remain today. A few examples include:

  •  A 1972 study found that only 5.2% of people employed by the U.S. Department of the Interior in the fields of Earth science and mineral engineering were Black. In 2015, that proportion rose to 5.8% before dipping to 4.9% in 2018, trending opposite the overall demographics of the US workforce. Statistics from the Department of the Interior for the years 2014–2018 are available in this (large) PDF.

To close, the hosts pointed out that despite the immense challenges of the past year, we’ve made some incredible progress as well. To continue to make progress without fizzling out, we need to learn to be allies, practice self-care, sit with discomfort when confronted with complex situations, and live according to our principles, inside and outside of science.

If you’re attending DPS but missed this session, you can check out the slides posted in the #event_wips channel of the DPS 53 Slack workspace or view a recording of the presentation in the virtual DPS meeting space. If you’re interested in the broader issue of equity and justice in planetary science, visit the Women in Planetary Science blog.

Illustration of 16-cent postage stamps by Brianna Young. The series of eight postage stamps, laid out as if they were part of a book of stamps, shows various stages of the formation of asteroid Psyche. First, a glowing sphere is impacted by a second object. The two objects spiral together before coalescing and cooling into the form Psyche takes today.

Digital illustration of postage stamps featuring the formation of asteroid Psyche. [TAPS Space Travel Gallery, by Brianna Young]

The Art of Planetary Science (by Briley Lewis)

A beloved feature of DPS each year is The Art of Planetary Science (TAPS), a public gallery event run by University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Founded in 2013 by graduate students as an outreach project, TAPS “celebrates the beauty and elegance of science.” Last year, they proudly showed over 200 pieces of art from almost 100 artists and scientists, drawing over 700 guests. Since the conference is virtual this year, the gallery is as well, making it accessible to a wide audience beyond DPS attendees. There are hundreds of artworks in a variety of media, sorted into five categories: Fine Art, Data Art, Space Travel, Kids’ Art, and Space Shorts (short stories or writing entries). The art of this show truly demonstrates the breadth of creativity, including a wide range of different art forms beyond drawing and painting: pottery, music, comics, embroidery, makeup, rugs, spoken word poetry, animated plots, clothing, collage, jewelry, origami, and more!

This year’s 1st place winners feature Mars, meteorites, and even a fictional planet named Bazorp. The Fine Art winner illustrates a human figure near a Martian surface feature known as a draa, a large sandy dune, as imaged by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Space Travel winner takes a more abstract approach, imagining a series of hands reaching towards the cosmos. Planet Bazorp makes its appearance in the Kids’ section winner, wherein the artist imagines herself on the distant planet, searching for her long lost friendship bracelet alongside an “alien sloth” and an “alien cheetah.” The writing winner tackles another fun topic, too — space cowboys.

Arguably the most unique category at TAPS, though, is the Data Art collection. Using real images and numerical data, this collection emphasizes the beauty and elegance of a good data visualization tool, as well as creative ways of using real data. This year’s Data Art winner is a gorgeous reconstruction of a meteorite under a microscope, using layers of paper, in the shape of the Antarctic continent where it was discovered. Other entries include simulated orbits of objects in resonance with Neptune, a soundscape based on cosmic ray and solar wind data, and digital art based on Kepler data.

Be sure to check out the gallery, which will be up all week, and vote for the DPS Choice Award and People’s Choice Award. If you’re interested in submitting art for next year’s show, you can join their mailing list to hear the next call for submissions, or follow them on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram!

Tuesday Press Conference (by Sabina Sagynbayeva)

​​Col-OSSOS: The BrightIR and FaintIR Taxonomy for Kuiper Belt Objects: Wesley Fraser (Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre)

The first to open today’s press conference is Dr. Wesley Fraser from Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre, who spoke about Col-OSSOS, the Colours of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey. The aim of this project is to investigate the colors of a large sample of Kuiper Belt Objects and set their taxonomic classification. The unusual tilted and eccentric orbits of KBOs have provided evidence for migration of giant planets in early protoplanetary disk. Astronomers tend to classify the KBOs based on their orbits and composition. Apparently, the variety of such structures is the result of the dynamical processes experienced by KBOs during the dispersal of the early disk. It also has been demonstrated that most equal-sized objects share similar colors, suggesting they have a similar composition. This is where color classification comes in. The result of this work showed that the composition of surfaces is quite homogenous. The color homogeneity of binary pairs contrasts with the overall diversity of colors in the Kuiper belt, which was interpreted as evidence that these KBOs formed from a locally homogeneous and globally heterogeneous protoplanetary disk.

Possible Connections Between an Unusual Micrometeorite and Dwarf Planet Ceres: Maitrayee Bose (Arizona State University)

Next up is Maitrayee Bose, a professor at Arizona State University. Her group found an unusual micrometeorite that’s similar to the dwarf planet Ceres. Micrometeorites are cosmic dust that sometimes rains down on us, produced by both asteroids and comets. These micrometeorites were collected in Antarctica, where they were trapped within cracks in the bedrock. The rare micrometeorite in question, TAM19B-7, doesn’t belong to any known classes of meteorites or micrometeorites, so the researchers decided to look for carbon. Carbon-enriched objects also indicate that they have carbonates and clay, which are formed from interaction with water. They found that TAM19B-7 indeed has a lot more carbon than most other meteorites and micrometeorites! The only meteorite that has the same amount of carbon is Tagish Lake. This carbonate abundance reminded them of Ceres, since its surface has clay and carbonates as well. Maybe TAM19B-7 does have some connection to Ceres! Press release

Lightcurve Observations in Support of the DART Mission: Understanding the Orbit of the Didymos-Dimorphos System: Cristina Thomas (Northern Arizona University)

The upcoming DART mission, launching in November 2021, will target the binary asteroid system Didymos–Dimorphos. The key goal of this mission is to fire an impactor into the smaller asteroid, Dimorphos, and then to measure the change produced in the binary orbital period and characterize the impact site and dynamics. To prepare for the mission, they look at dips in the amount of light observed every time when Dimorphos passes by Didymos (same as looking at the transits of exoplanets!). This information is known as a light curve, which contains the information about “mutual events” that occur when the objects shadow or pass in front of each other, as well as about the rotational periods of Didymos–Dimorphos system. Past analysis of data from 2003 to 2019 found orbital solutions for the binary with an uncertainty on the position of Dimorphos at the time of impact of ± 65 degrees, not very good for targeting the asteroid with a spacecraft. The addition of 2020–2021 data, though, reduced the uncertainty to a much better ± 10 degrees! They now know the orbital period of Dimorphos to within 0.1 second. This new information will help ensure the success of the DART mission. Press release

The Exotic Atmosphere of an Extreme World: Detection of Ionized Calcium in WASP-76b: Emily Deibert (University of Toronto) and Jake Turner (Cornell University)

The collaboration from ExoGemS Survey (Exoplanets with Gemini Spectroscopy) is trying to explore the diversity of exoplanet atmospheres at high resolution from sub-Neptunes to ultra-hot Jupiters, hoping to observe up to 30 planets over the course of the next three years. They want to learn about these planets’ atmospheric compositions, the density and composition of the exoplanet bodies, whether the planets have clouds and winds, etc. Today, Emily Deibert and Jake Turner presented a new discovery within the atmosphere of one of these exoplanets: WASP-76b, a tidally locked ultra-hot Jupiter. Its temperature is about 4400°F! Previous studies indicate that it may rain iron from its skies — and the collaboration has also detected sodium and calcium in its atmosphere. This indicates that the exoplanet is hotter than expected and might have strong atmospheric winds! This discovery was also detected independently by a collaboration Spain as well, so they are pretty certain about their results. Exoplanet atmospheres are even more extreme than previously anticipated! Cornell U. press release | U. of Toronto press release | Queen’s U. Belfast press release

Photographs of five people smiling. The images are labeled with the names of the panelists: James Owen, Laura Schaefer, Hilke Schlichting, Myriam Telus, and Johanna Teske. The bottom text reads: "53rd Meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences: Exoplanet Session. 3-8 October 2021, Virtually Anywhere, #DPS2021."

The DPS 53 Exoplanet Panel. [DPS]

Exoplanets Plenary (by Ali Crisp)

This year’s Exoplanets Plenary focused primarily on exoplanet atmospheres, with talks by Drs. Johanna Teske, Laura Schaefer, James Owen, Hilke Schlichting, and Myriam Telus. The talk was moderated by Dr. Jessie Christiansen and Dr. Prabal Saxena. The plenary consisted of five lightning talks from the panel and a Q&A session with the audience.

First up was Dr. Joanna Teske from the Carnegie Institute for Science. Dr. Teske gave an overview of super-Earths, sub-Neptunes, and terrestrial planets, and the current theories of their formation and composition. She also briefly discussed the information we would like to obtain using the composition of exoplanets’ host stars, which might tell us something about planetary atmospheres (though she noted that there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between stellar composition and planetary composition, since planetary compositions could also be affected by collisions between protoplanets). She ended with an overview of the exciting exoplanet atmosphere science that will come with the launch of JWST.

Then, we had Laura Schaefer from Stanford discussing her work studying outgassing models in the Trappist-1 system. Dr. Schaefer’s research focused on modeling different rates of outgassing from the planetary interiors and the oxidation of the planets’ mantles, and how those rates correlated with atmospheric composition over time. By varying the amount of water vapor in the planetary core models they used, Dr. Schaefer and collaborators were able to model the observed properties of Trappist-1 d, e, and f very well. This work can be used to further model and understand other systems like Trappist-1.

Next up was James Owen from Imperial College London. Dr. Owen presented on models of photoevaporation — in this context, the process of an exoplanet’s atmosphere being blown off by high-energy photons from their host star. He noted that, since photoevaporation requires high energy, it likely would have occurred early in the systems’ lifetimes when their host stars were still more active in the UV and X-ray, meaning that the older exoplanet populations we observe now have already gone through this process. Importantly, the models fit the currently observed radius distribution well, and they could explain the radius gap observed in planets of about two Earth radii.

Hilke Schlichting from UCLA then discussed her research on core-powered mass loss, the process through which the interior cooling of the planet during formation and the resulting gas outflows can cause atmospheric loss. She poses this as an alternative explanation for the radius valley, especially in models where atmospheric loss occurs over a period of 0.5–1 billion years. Further, she discusses two different scenarios that her team was able to determine from their models: reactive and unreactive core models, referring to whether iron was allowed to chemically interact with the planetary atmospheres in the models. They find that the reactive models lead to under-dense planetary cores, which are consistent with observations, but unreactive models do not.

The lightning rounds wrapped up with Myriam Telus from UC Santa Cruz. Dr. Telus discussed an interdisciplinary project she and her graduate student, Maggie Thompson, are working on that focuses on meteorite outgassing and the effects it may have on planetary composition. Essentially, meteorites can be used as a compositional analog for planetesimals during planetary formation in a protoplanetary disk. Seeing what gases they give off when heated in the disk can help us understand the composition of the disk and potentially of exoplanet atmospheres.

If you’re attending DPS and couldn’t make the plenary, Dr. Teske, Dr. Owen, and Dr. Schaefer have all posted their summary slides in the DPS 53 Slack workspace (#200_exoplanets_plenary). The pre-recorded talks are up on the Tuesday tab, and a recording of the session should be posted sometime Wednesday. Discussion will continue in the Slack workspace until the conference ends.

Greetings from the 53rd meeting of the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences, happening virtually anywhere! This week, AAS Nova editor Susanna Kohler and I, along with a team of writers from the Astrobites collaboration — Briley Lewis, Macy Huston, Sabina Sagynbayeva, Sasha Warren, and Ali Crisp — will be bringing you updates on some of the exciting science from the virtual conference. Check back here or on astrobites.org on Wednesday and Friday for summaries of plenary sessions, press conferences, and more!

In honor of the DPS meeting, we’re declaring this week Planetary Sciences Week here at AAS Nova; in addition to summaries of research presented at the DPS meeting, be on the lookout for more planetary science content throughout the week. The usual posting schedule for AAS Nova will resume on Monday, October 11.

In the meantime, here are a few upcoming events that might interest you. We hope to see you there!

  • DPS 53 Daily Press Conferences
    Monday (10/4) – Thursday (10/7), 11:00 am – 12:00 pm ET
  • Webinar: The Planetary Science Journal’s Publishing Process
    Tuesday (10/5), 11:30 am – 12:00 pm ET
  • Webinar: Sharing Planetary Science: Engaging Audiences Virtually
    Tuesday (10/5), 3:30 – 4:00 pm ET
  • Webinar: Perspective: How the PDS Fits Into the Larger Planetary Data Ecosystem
    Wednesday (10/6), 12:00 – 1:00 pm ET
  • Webinar: Volunteer Opportunities with Webb in 2022
    Thursday (10/7), 11:30 am – 12:00 pm ET
  • Attendee Event: The Art of Planetary Science, happening all week!

Don’t forget to check out the informal Science Chats throughout the week, stop by the virtual exhibit hall, and say hello in Gathertown!


Stellar Nurseries in the Palm of Your Hand

Editor’s note: AAS Nova is on vacation until 22 September. Normal posting will resume at that time; in the meantime, we’ll be taking this opportunity to look at a few interesting AAS journal articles that have recently been in the news or drawn attention.

When art and science meet, beautiful things can happen. For the first time, scientists have used 3D printing to create tangible models of molecular clouds. Nia Imara (University of California, Santa Cruz) and collaborators first performed a series of nine simulations in order to test how gravity, magnetism, and turbulence affect the formation of gas clumps and filaments in star-forming regions. Using a combination of opaque and transparent materials, they then printed multiple 8-centimeter-wide spheres and hemispheres to showcase the results of their simulations.

Their 3D-printed models demonstrate the effects of changing various physical parameters and highlight structures that can be hard to identify in 2D representations of 3D simulations. For example, cranking up the magnetic field strength suspends gas filaments along the magnetic field lines, while suppressing the magnetic field allows the gas to collapse, leaving behind voids. In addition to the scientific benefits of these models, the authors hope that their hand-held nature will make them a useful tool for outreach and education.

Original article: “Touching the Stars: Using High-resolution 3D Printing to Visualize Stellar Nurseries,” N. Imara et al 2021 ApJL 918 L3. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ac194e

University of California Santa Cruz press release: Astronomers Create the First 3D-Printed Stellar Nurseries

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