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

Planets, Planets Everywhere (Not Just Where You'd Think)

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.

microlensing diagram

A diagram of how planets are detected via gravitational microlensing. The detectable planet is in orbit around the foreground lens star. [NASA]

Most of the exoplanets we’ve discovered are located within about 3,300 light-years of Earth, leaving the distribution of planets across the rest of the Milky Way a mystery. To tackle this question, a team of astronomers led by Naoki Koshimoto (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center) analyzed observations of 28 planets discovered with gravitational microlensing — a technique that can detect planets at far greater distances than the transit or radial-velocity techniques. They compared the characteristics of the observed microlensing events against what would be expected if planets tend to be clustered near the galactic center, sequestered on the edges of the galactic disk, or distributed more evenly throughout the Milky Way.

Based on the observations, the team found that planet frequency is only weakly dependent upon distance from the galactic center. This result suggests that planets are likely to be found throughout the galaxy, though the results don’t fully rule out the possibility that planets could be rare near the galactic center — especially if the masses of the lensing objects tend to be small. As the number of planets discovered with gravitational microlensing grows, astronomers should gain a better understanding of how planets are distributed throughout the Milky Way.

Original article: “No Large Dependence of Planet Frequency on Galactocentric Distance,” N. Koshimoto et al 2021 ApJL 918 L8. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ac17ec

Osaka University press release: Cold Planets Exist Throughout Our Galaxy, Even in the Galactic Bulge

Heavy Metals Hint at an Unusually Dense White Dwarf

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.

A team of astronomers led by Yuken Ohshiro (University of Tokyo) used X-ray observations from the space-based XMM-Newton observatory to detect the presence of heavy metals in supernova remnant 3C 397. They discovered a region that is rich in titanium and chromium in addition to the more commonly found manganese, iron, and nickel. The ratios of the abundances of these elements suggest that they formed in a white dwarf with a central density of 5 x 109 g cm-3, which is more than twice as dense as expected for a white dwarf at the Chandrasekhar mass limit — the maximum mass white dwarfs are thought to be able to attain.

This finding suggests that the white dwarfs that give rise to Type Ia supernovae are not identical, instead having a range of central densities. Because Type Ia supernovae are considered standard candles — cosmic beacons of equal luminosity that allow us to gauge distances to far-off galaxies — it’s crucial to understand whether their white-dwarf progenitors are as uniform as expected. Extending this measurement technique to other supernova remnants should clarify our understanding of these objects and ensure that Type Ia supernovae can continue to be used as precise standard candles in the future.

Original article: “Discovery of a Highly Neutronized Ejecta Clump in the Type Ia Supernova Remnant 3C 397,” Yuken Ohshiro et al 2021 ApJL 913 L34. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abff5b

JAXA Institute of Space and Astronautical Science press release: A rogue in the “Cosmic Standard Candle”? The relic of the densest white dwarf has been detected in the remnant of its supernova

Illustration of a compact star with beams of light emitting from its poles.

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.

What’s inside the dense interior of a neutron star, the remnant left behind at the end of a massive star’s evolution? Scientists have now searched for the answer to this question using new observations of an extreme neutron star from NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER).

schematic illustrating the different layers of a neutron star, including an unknown inner core

Scientists think neutron stars are layered. As shown in this illustration, the state of matter in their inner cores remains mysterious. [NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab]

Neutron star J0740+6620 is the heaviest neutron star that’s been precisely measured — and correspondingly precise measurements of its radius could provide the key to finally figuring out what its interior structure looks like. In a set of recent studies, one led by Cole Miller (University of Maryland) and the other by Thomas Riley (University of Amsterdam), two teams of scientists used NICER’s X-ray observations of J0740 to obtain accurate measures of the star’s radius using two different approaches. They found that J0740’s 2.1 solar masses are packed into a sphere just 25–27 km across.

These new results, combined with previous measurements of other neutron stars, are helping us to understand whether neutron stars are made up primarily of neutrons in their interior, or whether the pressure is so great that those neutrons have disintegrated into a soup of particles called quarks. A study led by Geert Raaijmakers (University of Amsterdam) uses these observations to place significant constraints on the so-called neutron star equation of state, which describes neutron star interiors.

To learn even more about this work, be sure to check out the summary video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center below.

Original articles:
“The Radius of PSR J0740+6620 from NICER and XMM-Newton Data,” M. C. Miller et al 2021 ApJL 918 L28. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ac089b
“A NICER View of the Massive Pulsar PSR J0740+6620 Informed by Radio Timing and XMM-Newton Spectroscopy,” Thomas E. Riley et al 2021 ApJL 918 L27. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ac0a81
“Constraints on the Dense Matter Equation of State and Neutron Star Properties from NICER’s Mass–Radius Estimate of PSR J0740+6620 and Multimessenger Observations,” G. Raaijmakers et al 2021 ApJL 918 L29. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/ac089a

Press releases:
University of Maryland: NASA’s NICER Probes the ‘Squeezability’ of Neutron Stars
University of Amsterdam: Astronomers Measure Heaviest Known Neutron Star With Telescope on ISS

Photograph taken at night showing three radio dishes in part of an array.

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.

A team of scientists has used the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) to measure the amount of atomic hydrogen gas — the main fuel for star formation — in galaxies at redshifts of z = 1.18–1.39, or roughly 9 billion years ago. Led by Aditya Chowdhury (National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India), the team obtained sensitive observations of these distant galaxies with the upgraded GMRT, an array of thirty 45-meter radio dishes located in India.

Star formation activity in our universe is known to have peaked around 8–10 billion years ago before declining steadily thereafter. By probing atomic hydrogen gas 9 billion years ago — the earliest epoch for which we’ve made these measurements yet — Chowdhury and collaborators showed that galaxies at this time contained vast reservoirs of fuel. This outcome supports the idea that our universe’s declining star formation is tied to depletion of these fuel reserves.

Original article: “Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope Detection of Hi 21 cm Emission from Star-forming Galaxies at z ≈ 1.3,” Aditya Chowdhury et al 2021 ApJL 913 L24. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abfcc7

National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research press release:
GMRT Measures the Atomic Hydrogen Gas Mass in Galaxies 9 Billion Years Ago

Five images show different gas velocity components of an elliptical protoplanetary disk surrounding a young star.

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.

Scientists have made a new, unusually accurate measurement of the mass of the protoplanetary disk orbiting around the young star Elias 2–27. The masses of protoplanetary disks — the disks of gas and dust that surround young stars, in which planets form — are highly uncertain. This inability to precisely measure how much matter is available to form baby planets limits our ability to understand the planet formation processes, so better means of measuring disk masses are needed.

In a new study led by Benedetta Veronesi (University of Milan, Italy), a team of scientists has now leveraged multiwavelength observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to track the rotation curve of the disk around Elias 2–27, disentangling the gravitational influence of the central star from the self-gravity of the disk. This allowed the team to make the first dynamical measurement of this protoplanetary disk’s mass — which provides a much more accurate measurement than previous methods and lays the groundwork for extending this technique to other systems.

Original article: “A Dynamical Measurement of the Disk Mass in Elias 2–27,” Benedetta Veronesi et al 2021 ApJL 914 L27. doi:10.3847/2041-8213/abfe6a

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) press release:
Study of Young Chaotic Star System Reveals Planet Formation Secrets

Gif animation shows different views of the disk around Elias 2-27 at different wavelengths

This animation shows the different molecular tracers used to better understand the gases present in the disk surrounding Elias 2-27. Seen are the 0.87mm dust continuum data (blue), C18O emission (yellow), and 13CO emission (red), with each layer shown individually and in composite. [ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/T. Paneque-Carreño (Universidad de Chile), B. Saxton (NRAO)]

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