Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why There is Always a Lot of Astronomy News in Early January

I'll share a little secret with you. If you follow astronomy developments, you might have noticed that there are a lot of news stories that come out at the beginning of January. The reason is that the nation's professional astronomers have their big meeting each year in early January, and many universities and observatories save up their big announcements to coincide with a talk or paper being delivered at that meeting.

This year was no exception -- many thousands of astronomers gathered for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, a shopping-center-ambiance convention center (and tourist trap,) a short distance from Washington, DC. I was only there at the beginning, leading a workshop on education for young astronomers, because I had to get back for the start of the winter quarter at Foothill College. But the cosmic news stories were descending on us thicker than the snow in the northeast in the same week.

Here are just a few of the "stellar" news items from the week:

* The Kepler mission (searching for planets orbiting other stars) announced the confirmation of several dozen planets among the thousands first glimpsed with Kepler. Among them were five rocky planets bigger than Earth. Two of them are 40% bigger than our planet and have densities similar to lead!

* Scientists working with the Spitzer Space Telescope -- which views the universe of heat rays (infra-red) and not light -- made observations of brown dwarfs (failed stars). They found that many of them have huge storms in their atmospheres (like the giant storm on Jupiter we call the "Great Red Spot.") The stormy atmospheres of these stars is what the artist's impression in the accompanying image tries to show. Such storms probably have giant lightning bolts and torrential rain. But it's too hot for the rain to be water, so the droplets could hot sand, molten iron, or salts. Bring a strong umbrella if you go.

* A graduate student at Vanderbilt University has discovered what appear to be ordinary stars that have been kicked out of our Galaxy at speeds of a million miles per hour. Such "hyper-velocity stars" have been found before, but they were thought to be a special category of big blue stars kicked out by unfortunate encounters with the monster black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The ones in the current study come from the direction of the main disc of our pinwheel shaped galaxy, not from the the center. So what could have given them such enormous speeds is a complete mystery.

I will tell you about other discoveries in future posts. In the meantime, if you have some science background and want to see what it feels like to be a science reporter at one of these meetings, you can go to the page where the Society archives the press conferences:
and check out one or two of them. Or just take a minute and contemplate how really alien and strange the worlds beyond our planet are turning out to be.

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