Last month, almost 3,000 astronomers came together in Seattle as a part of the 2011 American Astronomical Society (AAS) winter meeting. The AAS meetings are a great venue for astronomers to share their recent research findings and form new collaborations to tackle unsolved problems in astrophysics.
The meetings are packed with a range of activities, including sessions in the morning and end of each day that everyone attends, and multiple sessions throughout the day touching on every theme in astrophysics research. I always find that one of the keys to surviving an AAS meeting is to plan which sessions I attend well in advance, so I know exactly where to be at what time.
One of the reasons that I attended this year’s AAS meeting was to present the first results from an exciting new study that our team just undertook with Hubble. Most of the presentations at the AAS are in the form of Powerpoint talks and are restricted to just five minutes. The idea is to give a “punch line” of your research, and excite folks in the audience so they come and chat with you afterward to get more details.
I normally give a talk at these meetings in one of these sessions, but I decided to present a poster this year instead.
The poster presentations take a completely different format than the oral talks. On each day of the meeting, hundreds of astronomers enter the convention center hall first thing in the morning and tack their posters up on boards. Then, throughout the day, other astronomers visit and ask questions, and we discuss the scientific results together. I ended up chatting with dozens of astronomers about my poster throughout the day. At the end of the day, all of the posters are taken down and a new set starts the next day.
I made my poster a few weeks before the meeting. It included pictures, plots, and text that described our new study. The research project described on the poster represents one of my favorite topics, ultra-deep imaging of faint stars in nearby star clusters. The particular cluster that we studied, called 47 Tucanae (47 Tuc), contains over 100,000 stars packed into a tiny region of space. If our planet was in 47 Tuc, we would never see night. Various stars would rise and set throughout the day, every day.
Our study of 47 Tuc is unique. We used three different cameras on two Hubble instruments and obtained the deepest ultraviolet, optical, and infrared images of the star cluster to date. Our images have revealed the faintest hydrogen-burning stars in the cluster, stars that have 10 times less mass than the Sun. Our study is also the first to find all of the “dead” stars in the cluster, faint stellar cinders of once brilliant massive stars that now have no nuclear fuel. Finally, our imaging was so deep that it actually uncovered very low mass stars in a galaxy that is orbiting the Milky Way. The galaxy, called the Small Magellanic Cloud, can be seen with the naked eye in the southern skies and sits behind 47 Tuc, almost at the edge of our galaxy.
Since coming back from the AAS meeting, I’ve received several e-mails from astronomers expressing interest in our 47 Tuc results. We are now writing scientific papers so these scientists can read all of the details of our investigation in astronomical journals. At next year’s AAS meeting, I plan to present something new to the community. And even though it’s a year away, I’m already excited.