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Astronomers in Seattle

There are many different meetings and conferences for professional astronomers, but one of the most widely attended is the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. These are held twice a year, in June and January, though January is better attended. The location of the meeting changes each time, but every four years it’s in Seattle, WA. (Washington, DC hosts winter AAS every four years too – last year the meeting was in DC and we made a podcast episode about what the meeting was like!)

This year, I traveled to Seattle to attend the meeting. This was pretty cool, because I’d never been to Seattle before, and I was able to take some time off to sight-see before and after the meeting.

Here’s what my meeting experience was like:

Seattle Skyline

I flew in on a Saturday night, and got in super late. The conference was at the Seattle Convention Center, so there was no convention hotel, however, the hotel I stayed in was a short block away (and had free wifi!).

Picture 1

I definitely grew to appreciate the various awnings and sidewalk coverings because it really is as rainy as they say in Seattle!

Sunday morning I helped my officemate put up the Fermi, Swift, and WFIRST NASA booths. A few hours later, we were free to take in some of Seattle. (Of course, I had to pay for the hotel myself for the days I was touring, but it was so worth it!) Sunday night we headed to the opening reception – I snapped a quick pic of the ballroom filled with astronomers:

The good thing about going out west for a conference is that it’s much easier to get up early in the morning than it is at home. The AAS meeting has sessions that start around 8:30 am. The exhibit hall, where all the booths and posters are, opened at 9am.

I mostly spent Monday helping out at the booths, and checking out the exhibits and posters. My own poster wasn’t til the following day. At the AAS meeting, if you want to present your work, you can choose to give a talk, or you can make a poster, which gets hung in the exhibit hall. You stand by your poster on the given day so you can talk to people about your work and answer any questions they might have.

At the Fermi and Swift booth, we had pens to hand out, among other things:



I also ran into our former intern, Faith, purely by accident! It was great to see her again!


Since I work on the James Webb Space Telescope, I of course had to check out the various booths for it. The Space Telescope Science Institute had one – and Northop Grumman, the prime contractor, also had one. Ball Aerospace, another contractor, also had JWST info at their booth!

Here’s part of the Northrop booth:


They also had this sample mirror, which was NOT Webb telescope related – it was to demonstrate another mirror technique. It looked cool, anyway!



Here is part of Space Telescope’s booth:


Astronaut John Grunsfeld (he helped repair the Hubble recently) stopped by the Fermi booth for a bit too! My picture taking is (not) subtle!


Tuesday was my poster, which was about how professionals could get involved with Webb’s “RealWorld-InWorld” engineering design challenge. (If you are an interested scientist or engineering, or work with high school or college kids, comment and we can tell you how to get involved! You can read more in this blog as well.)


Wednesday I had a morning meeting with other Webb telescope education/outreach/public affairs folks. Because the work for Webb is spread out all over the country, we normally meet by telecon. But at AAS we are able to meet in person. In this morning meeting, we went over all the various education/outreach activities that each institution has (Ball, Northrop Grumman, Goddard, University of Arizona, Space Telescope).

Note the cardboard scale model of one of Webb’s mirror segments at left in the back. Towards the right is a new small scale model of one of the mirror segments.


On the back of the model you can even see how the segments are machined out – they even have the actuators that will align the mirror segments together.

JWST model

We passed around a bunch of interesting “props” that can be used when we do outreach, like a piece of Webb’s sunshield, a piece of the composite material our ISIM (which will hold our instruments) is made of, etc. Here is a sample of microshutters from Webb’s NIRSpec instrument.


This is not Webb hardware, but I thought these Braille/tactile astronomical images were really interesting. (And you can learn more about them on the Amazing Space website.)
Tactile Astronomy

I left the meeting briefly to go make sure the leftover brochures from my RealWorld-InWorld poster were at the Space Telescope booth, and when I got back, I found Astronaut John Grunsfeld trying to figure out if he had the right room for our meeting. And he did!

More subtle photos:



Sadly he only stayed for the morning meeting, the afternoon meeting had 100% fewer astronauts, but we did havea a great talk about what we were planning for 2011. All in all, a productive day!

Thursday was shorter day – the booths had to packed up at 2pm. Some people counted down the minutes using leftover pens:


And then, suddenly it was over!


I didn’t mention one of the other great things about going to these meetings – it’s a terrific place to catch up with old friends. And you can also introduce your old friends to your newer ones. Sometimes it turns out they even know each other. I guess it’s not a very large community! To give you an idea, one night our dinner party included me, an old friend from undergrad, a former co-worker I played in a band with before he moved away, my officemate, and friends of his from both undergrad and graduate school.

The next winter meeting will be in Austin, TX – if one of us from Blueshift goes, we’ll be sure to have a report for you!

We still have some coverage of the stories that broke during the AAS meeting to come – so look for that soon!

Space Needle


  • Jason says:

    Good to hear you had a pleasant time in Seattle! I’m sure the convention in Texas will have better weather during the winter.

  • Jonah says:

    Wow! This is amazing, especially the awesome pics!

  • John says:

    Home of Supersonics! Very nice photos!

  • David Sprague says:

    I’m glad you had a good time in Seattle however, your first picture is pretty much what Seattle looks like all the time. Are these conventions still held in Seattle in January and June? Amazing pictures of the convention!

    • Sara Mitchell says:

      David – The conventions are held January and June, but the location moves around the country!

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