Thursday, January 13, 2011

From the American Astronomical Society Meeting: Mind Your Bulge

By Alaina G.Levine

There is no way one could be lost in space at the 217th American Astronomical Society (AAS) Meeting this week, held in Seattle, WA. Although thousands of people attended, there was still plenty of opportunity to cull through the particulates and learn about the hottest cosmological discoveries on Earth.

Among the exciting announcements and talks:

--The discovery of the smallest planet known outside our solar system, Kepler-10b, was confirmed by NASA. The rocky exo-planet was found by the Kepler spacecraft and orbits the star known as Kepler-10, the first star identified “that could potentially harbor a small transiting planet”. The planet is 1.4 times the size of our blue marble, but is not in the so-called “habitable zone” of its star – in fact its orbit, which is .84 days, puts Kepler 10-b more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun, so there ain’t going to be any green martians (or should I say keplerians?) on that rock, unless perhaps they eat arsenic, and even then, that’s pushin’ it.

More information: New York Times article,

--With the detection of a supermassive black hole in a dwarf galaxy, scientists believe this may signify that these super scary monstrosities formed before galaxies. According to a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (which by the way, hosted a town hall at AAS), the galaxy, known as Henize 2-10, is 30 million light years from Earth and has an irregular shape that is similar to that of what many astronomers posit might be the very first galaxies to form in the early Universe.

Typically, there is a direct connection between the mass of a black hole and the central “bulge” of galaxies, which have led scientists to conclude that black holes and bulges influenced each others’ growth. But using data from the Very Large Array and the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers observed that this galaxy doesn’t have a bulge and yet has a supermassive black hole. “This greatly strengthens the case for the black holes developing first, before the galaxy’s bulge is former,” stated Amy Reines, a doctorate student at the University of Virginia (UVA). “This galaxy probably resembles those in the very young Universe, when galaxies were just starting to form and were colliding frequently. All its properties, including the supermassive black hole, are giving us important new clues about how these black holes and galaxies formed at that time,” said Kelsey Johnson also of UVA and NRAO. So much for how important a bulge really is…

Read the Nature paper here
Photo courtesy of NRAO.

--And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t report that just when you thought that children’s birthday parties were not over the top enough, what with jumping castles, petting zoos, and custom-made cupcakes, now there’s a new way to alleviate that bulge in your wallet. As demonstrated at the AAS Conference, you can excite your child’s intellectual curiosity while demonstrating to the other parents on the block that you are, well, a better parent, by taking advantage of a mobile, inflatable planetarium. Can anyone contact the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and let them know?

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