On August 21st, 2017, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the continental United States, the first such eclipse in 38 years! With the path of totality passing directly across our state, Idaho will be a destination for eclipse-chasers from around the world.
The event will be start in the Multi-Purpose Classroom Building in room 101 at 7:30p and then move to the top of the Brady Garage at 8:30p, where telescopes will be set up for star-gazing (weather-permitting).
The star has been called the WTF star (‘Where’s the Flux?’), Tabby’s Star (and probably a few more colorful things by perplexed astronomers), but Wright and Sigurdsson invoke the long astronomical tradition of naming noteworthy stars with their discoverers’ last names — they call it Boyajian’s Star, after Dr. Tabetha Boyajian, astronomer royale at Yale.
The strange thing about Boyajian’s star is that the Kepler mission observed the star to dim dramatically several times over a few years, dropping by 20% over the course of a few days several times over a few hundred days. That would be like having a partial solar eclipse that lasted 96 hours every few months. Even stranger, recent analyses of 100+ year old photographic plates suggest the star has been dimming, unnoticed, for a long time.
Various explanations for this strange behavior have been proposed, from enormous swarms of comets obscuring the star to alien megastructures, and Wright does a very good job exploring the different possibilities on his blog.
But as usually happens in astronomy, the most exciting explanations are the least likely (probably not an alien Dyson sphere), and Wright and Sigurdsson favor the idea that some sort of interstellar material between the Earth and Boyajian’s star is obscuring the star. Wright and Sigurdsson point out that, by measuring the distance to the star, the Gaia mission will help us resolve the mystery.
Then at 8:30p the event will move to the Boise State quad (next to the Albertson Library and near the center of campus)the top of the Brady Street Garage (just off University Drive near Capitol), where telescopes will be set up to view Mars, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
Ruth Murray-Clay gave a nice review talk about the variety of different mechanisms and regimes for atmospheric escape, while Eric Lopez suggested that, because escape should preferentially remove lighter elements from atmospheres, short-period exoplanets might retain water-rich envelopes, which could help us constrain their atmospheric compositions. Patricio Cubillos picked up on an idea previously explored by Owen and Wu and suggested that we could use mass-loss considerations to constrain the overall properties (density, etc.) of some short-period planets.
On Friday, we welcomed visitors from among the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars program. This is an Idaho Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) Program for rising high school seniors and provides an opportunity to learn in-class and hands-on during the school year and summer academy. The students spent most of their week at Boise State but also had a fun trip to NASA Ames to explore the facilities there.
In the Physics Dept., we hosted a group of 12 students from among the ISAS crowd, all of whom specifically requested to learn about astronomy during their Boise State visit. The students came from all over Idaho, including local Boiseans.
They spent the first hour of their visit learning about the physics research going on at Boise State and then exploring the night sky using a sky simulator like stellarium.
Never look at the Sun with the appropriate equipment!
Then we went outside to look at the Sun using our solar telescopes. Fortunately, there was a beautiful solar filament strewn across the face of the Sun.
Dr. Josh Bandfield explains thermal conductivity and how we can use it to learn about Martian volcanoes.
Boise’s local near-space expert Dr. Paul Verhage has begun posting video versions of his program “Idaho Skies”. The video provides a nice description of astronomical objects visible during the week of June 5-11, along with some fun astronomy history. Worth a look.
The crowd was really amazing. Despite my being delayed by a flat bike tire, there was an enormous group of enthusiastic astrophiles waiting for me when I arrived.
We toured the night sky briefly using the stellarium program, a free (but please donate) and open-source night sky simulator available here — http://stellarium.org/.
I made quite a long talk to fill the two-hour scheduled slot, but there were so many interesting questions, I barely made it halfway through. I’ve posted my abstract and presentation below in case there’s any interest.
The Exoplanet Revolution
The discoveries of hundreds of planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, have led to a renaissance in astrophysics and revolutionized every sub-discipline within planetary astronomy. The vast array of new planets strains imagination, and even after two decades of discovery, exoplanets pose a host of astrophysical riddles. In this presentation, I’ll describe how these distant worlds have revised our picture of planet formation and evolution. I’ll also discuss outstanding questions in planetary astrophysics and prospects for observational work, including the TESS mission, selected by NASA for a 2017 launch to find more, nearby planets.
I’ve posted two of the talks and abbreviated abstracts below. The dust devil talk, “Summoning Devils in the Desert”, is a reprise of a previous talk, so I didn’t include it below.
Crowdfunding To Support University Research and Public Outreach
In this presentation, I discussed my own crowdfunding project to support the rehabilitation of Boise State’s on-campus observatory. As the first project launched on PonyUp, it was an enormous success — we met our original donation goal of $8k just two weeks into the four-week campaign and so upped the goal to $10k, which we achieved two weeks later. In addition to the very gratifying monetary support of the broader Boise community, we received personal stories from many of our donors about their connections to Boise State and the observatory. I’ll talk about our approach to social and traditional media platforms and discuss how we leveraged an unlikely cosmic syzygy to boost the campaign.
On the Edge: Exoplanets with Orbital Periods Shorter Than a Peter Jackson Movie In this presentation, I discussed the work of our Short-Period Planets Group (SuPerPiG), focused on finding and understanding this surprising new class of exoplanets. We are sifting data from the reincarnated Kepler Mission, K2, to search for additional short-period planets and have found several new candidates. We are also modeling the tidal decay and disruption of close-in gaseous planets to determine how we could identify their remnants, and preliminary results suggest the cores have a distinctive mass-period relationship that may be apparent in the observed population. Whatever their origins, short-period planets are particularly amenable to discovery and detailed follow-up by ongoing and future surveys, including the TESS mission.