Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Astronomy now

So here's my first report back from the first day and a half of the AAS meeting. With these big meeting's I generally find that the plenary session overview talks are most interesting. From these you get a good idea of what's going on in a specific field without having to have any expert knowledge of it. This has been true of this meeting so far with some rather good talks that have informed as well as entertained (well less of the entertained, but at least they kept me interested.) Yesterday started off nicely with a talk on searches for exotrasolar Earth's by James Kasting. It was interested to find out the current status of all the different future searches, for example TPF (the Terrestrial Planet Finder) for which I didn't know that there are two different design proposals (one using a coronagraph to block out the host star's light to enable direct observation of planets orbiting it, and the other using interferometry), and the very ambitious, and potentailly NASA budget breaking SIM. There was then a very frank and candid talk from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (he only does "candour" apparently). It was a rather good talk actually and he was full of praise for all the things that the astrophysics community does, but wanted to remind them to be realistic about the NASA funds available for various mission. He also wanted to point out that human spaceflight and aeronautics are as much a part of NASA as pure astrophysics and that wasn't going to change. So astrophysicist better learn to work with that it mind and not throw their toys out the pram, complaining that if there wasn't a human spaceflight plan then there'd be more money for real science, when their particular mission doesn't get funded - that's just the way the world works, and in particular publicly funded institutions work. He also advised people that for the good of the whole field of space research they should try and promote, and speak with one voice, on all that NASA does (see here and here for possibly better informed discussion on this talk.) There was also a very nice talk on the science that the New Horizons mission to Pluto has been able to get during it's Jupiter flyby (see for example the very nice picture that was on APOD yesterday - now my laptop desktop background.) This included monitoring and tracking storms in Jupiter's atmosphere, and studying a large eruption from Io (see said picture again.) This morning there was another very interesting and science packed talk on milliarcsecond astrometry (measuring the position and motion of objects in space) with the VLBA. I hadn't realised how well parallax distances and motions within our galaxy could be measured, but apparently it's pretty damn well. They're also able to do some very impressive cosmological distance measurements to like measuring the Hubble constance to ~10%, which is comparable to the Hubble Key Project.

Anyway, I'd better get back to the talks now, but I'll try and do another summary before the meeting ends, or expand on some of the things I've written. I'll also let you know about Austin (e.g. there's a street that's almost entirely bars!)