2017 was a great year for astronomy. In its last issue of every year, Science News picks its 10 best science stories of the year, and three of them were about astronomy. In first place was the history-making observation of the binary neutron star collision in galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light years from earth. This detection ushered in a new era of “multi-messenger” astronomy.
This collision was first detected by the two LIGO gravity wave observatories in the USA and the Virgo observatory near Pisa Italy. It was detected 1.7 seconds later as a gamma-ray burst by observatory satellites in earth orbit. Over the next several weeks, the “kilonova” the collision spawned was observed in every frequency of electromagnetic radiation, from x-rays to radio waves. The observations absorbed an estimated 15% of global observatory time, and almost 4,000 astronomers, physicists, and astrophysicists were involved in the observations and their analysis.
You can read more about this merger of neutron stars here https://www.ligo.org/science/Publication-GW170817MMA/flyer.pdf and see a NASA video simulation of the merger here: https://youtu.be/x_Akn8fUBeQ
2017 was a banner year for HAS too. During the year, our Outreach Program achieved new highs in the number of events we covered and the number of our members who volunteered to share their love of astronomy with the public. Under the leadership of Joe Khalaf, we also provided the public with the opportunity to observe the night sky by partnering with the Lunar and Planetary Institute for “Observe the Moon Night”, organized a meteor shower party at a nearby state park, and set up telescopes at some unconventional venues such as a music festival, a corporate event on Discovery Green and at an iconic Houston film festival. We also showed the partial eclipse to well over 300 people who might not otherwise have had the opportunity.
We also had stand-out performances by a couple of our members that were recognized by the amateur astronomy community. Debbie Moran was presented the International Dark Sky Associations Hoag-Robinson Award, for her long-term efforts to get the City of Houston to adopt night sky friendly lighting, and the Texas Star Party’s Omega Centauri Award for leadership in astronomy outreach was presented to Joe Khalaf. HAS achieved other milestones in 2017, such as the completion of the Women’s and Family bunkhouse at our Dark Sky Site in Columbus, establishment of HAS Kids group to help our youngest members become engaged in astronomy, and the continued success and popularity of the HAS Women’s SIG and Novice Labs at the Site.
So, I ask you – what do the discovery and analysis of the neutron star “kilonova” and the HAS’ achievements of 2017 have in common? The answer is simple but maybe not so obvious. Both were achieved by a large group of people who are dedicated to and passionate about astronomy, and want to share the wonder of the universe with others.
What does 2018 have in store for HAS? I don’t know specifically, but that’s where you as HAS members come in. I can assure you that the more involved you are in HAS and the more passionate about astronomy you become, you will help us achieve many new milestones in the coming year while at the same time you will learn more about the fascinating universe we live in.