Astrobites@National Harbor: Tuesday Afternoon at #aas223

Are you encountering a polar vortex? If so, stay warm and keep up with AAS from the comfort of your computer screen! (If not, you can stay too!) Once again, Astrobites is liveblogging AAS! In order to avoid inundating our readers’ RSS feeds, we’ll be updating this post with short paragraphs about the talks we’ve heard and posters we’ve seen. Keep checking back throughout Tuesday afternoon!

At 4:30 EST, Alice Harding (GSFC) will give a talk about "The Amazing Pulsar Machine." Here's a lovely optical/X-ray image of the Crab Pulsar.

At 4:30 EST, Alice Harding (GSFC) will give a talk about “The Amazing Pulsar Machine.” Here’s a lovely optical/X-ray image of the Crab Pulsar.

Thirty Meter Telescope Town Hall

The Thirty Meter Telescope project (TMT)  was born out of the success of the Keck Observatory. In 2000, a “Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope” was indicated as a top priority of the 2000 Decadal Survey. The TMT is a partnership between the US, Canada, China, India and Japan and it will be located in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, with science operations expected to start in 2022. Imagine the power of a 30 m mirror with adaptive optics! This system will yield images that are 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Among the science that will come out of TMT there are spectroscopic studies of the Universe up to higher redshifts than it is possible at the moment and the capability to constrain General Relativity in center of our Galaxy, near the surface of the central black hole. How would you use TMT?

The TMT at sunset. Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation.

The TMT at sunset. Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation.

NASA Town Hall

As you’re probably aware, NASA’s budget is tight and has been for several years. The town hall began with Paul Hertz, director of the NASA Astrophysics Division, outlined NASA’s goals to implement the goals of the 2010 Decadal Review under the current budget (which is insufficient to complete all the goals of the review).

You have probably heard that a budget was passed by Congress recently. This sets the total level of discretionary spending, but not the specific level for astronomy. The expected value is between the value assigned to astronomy during the sequestration and the value requested by President Obama. This budget includes no money for education and public outreach (ed. note: Call/write/email your Congressperson if you are unhappy about this! See here.

Other unfortunate news: as a result of the recent shutdown, the Antarctic research season was shut down as well.

Some good news! The WFIRST mission is still being planned. The plan is to use the 2.4 meter “Hubble-class” satellites recently donated by the NRO. There’s also discussion of adding a coronagraph to be used in the search for directly imaged exoplanets. NICER and TESS are also moving along according to plan. Additionally, SOFIA has three new instruments that will be commissioned this year.

Overall, there are issues. The budget is flat, the number of proposals are up, and therefore the fraction of supported proposals is down. There was no discussion about the upcoming senior review, which will decide on extensions for current missions such as Kepler, Spitzer, NuSTAR, and Hubble beyond the present year. There are bright spots: the currently planned missions are still moving along. But it looks like NASA is likely in for another difficult year.


Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy Town Hall

Meredith Hughes presented an updated astronomy demographic survey during the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy Town Hall. The goals of the survey are simple: to determine how many men and women are in each career stage and how those numbers change over time. The survey was conducted in 1992, 1999, and 2003, and now 2013. The 2013 data included 3117 astronomers from graduate students through full professors. Among the overall very encouraging results:

  • The proportion of female graduate students has increased from 22% in 1992 to 34% in 2013.
  • The proportion of women winning prize postdoctoral fellowships (Hubble, Sagan, Einstein) has stayed steady around 30% for 20 years. This has now percolated to the assistant professor level: the proportion of female assistant professors has increased to 27%, up from 17% in 1992.
  • The proportion of women in full professor positions has nearly tripled from 5% in 1992 to 14% in 2013.

In less encouraging news, there appears to be a negative correlation between research ranking level and proportion of women. There is also evidence for an increasing polarization in departments, with some departments struggling to attract and retain females at all levels.


Astrophysics Code Sharing
Meredith Rawls

There were two standing-room-only afternoon sessions: code sharing and a workshop on education and public outreach. It was hard to choose one or the other, but code sharing was something I knew little about. There were four short talks followed by nearly an hour for Q&A and discussion. The overarching themes of this hugely popular session included…

  • Virtually all astronomers write code on a regular basis, but we tend to reinvent the wheel each time we need to accomplish some basic task. How can we do this better?
  • Should we have policies that mandate code release in conjunction with publication or receipt of Federal funds? There was general support for this idea, though the NSF panelist suggested it was impractical for NSF/NASA to police this, and it would instead need to be a standard enforced by the community.
  • Examples of great projects like astropy that uses a grassroots “self-herding cats” model to develop and mainain code collaboratively.
  • Debunking perceived “cons” of sharing your code. Common ones were “my code sucks,” “I might be scooped,” “I don’t want to have to answer questions about my code.” Of these, only the last one is really legitimate. Rebuttals for the first two: if you’re not embarrassed by the code you released, you released it too late; we know of zero examples where somebody was scooped because they shared their code. On the contrary—sharing code sends the message that you have your act together (even if you may feel otherwise) and it wouldn’t be worth someone’s time to scoop you.

There was also a lively “meta-session” on twitter in real time, that I participated in (I’m @merrdiff). Be sure to search #astroCodeShare on twitter for more thoughts on the future of code sharing in astrophysics.




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  1. The code sharing topic is of some interest to me, since I used to be part of a working group at NASA for software reuse in Earth science. Some of the general topics and issues seem to cross disciplinary boundaries, so some of what astronomy does may help Earth science and vice versa. If you or others would like to be put in contact with folks on the Earth science side, let me know. I’m not sure exactly what they’re up to now, but it might still be worth making contact and discussing things.

  2. Meredith, very nice summary of the code sharing session; thanks! The AAS Extras page for the session (here: lists the abstracts for the six talks and has additional links, including to some of the slides used in the talks. All of the slides used will be up on the ASCL website ( within a few days.

    James, yes, there are definitely topics and issues that cross disciplinary boundaries. I’ve looked at previous efforts in astrophysics similar to the ASCL and also at efforts in other disciplines, but it has never occurred to me to look at Earth science! I’d be interested in talking with your contacts; thanks!


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