Astrobiology 2017 Was AWESOME!

Last week’s Astrobiology Science Conference was awesome—there’s really no other way to describe it. There were a ton of great talks, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet new folks. The weather was beautiful all week, and my intern and I had a great trip.

As a self-employed science writer, the most glaring reason to attend conferences is potential stories, and I found quite a few. Of course, I don’t want to give them away for free or have someone else pitch them before I do, but I think I can safely share a few brief summaries.

Andrew Maynard (Arizona State University) kicked things off with an awesome interactive plenary talk on planetary protection. Rather than taking a more boring statistical approach, he used an audience poll to ask for one-word answers to a few questions to try to help everyone grasp some of the most important motivations and concerns with space exploration for everyone from kids to politicians to astrobiologists. Then he hit on a few key concerns and opened the session up to the audience for discussion. I already turned that piece in to, so it should be out soon.

Lynn Rothschild (NASA Ames Research Center) told us that the most important thing we pack for Mars may be test tubes of cells.

Steve Vance (JPL) discussed how ice quakes could help reveal insights about Europa and other icy worlds. He even played a sound clip of what you might hear!

In a session devoted to Proxima Centauri b, we learned that the closest exoplanet is most likely rocky and probably the only habitable zone inhabitant, that worlds won’t thrive at the distances comparable to Uranus and Neptune, and that we could maybe spot aurorae from the tiny world!

Olivier Bollengier (University of Washington) suggested that the oceans beneath Ganymede, Callisto, and other small icy bodies could percolate through their “Dagwood sandwich” layers of ice and perhaps come in contact with the rocky layers of the core.

And Sarah Rugheimer (Cornell) told us that dangerous flares from M-dwarfs could cause alien life to light up to survive, creating a signal we might one day see from Earth.

I have a whole list of other great potential story pitches, so I’ll be sure to let you know when they are written up and posted; stay tuned!

The next most important thing for me at conferences is networking, whether with other journalists or with scientists. Press at AbSciCon is pretty slim—my intern and I had the press room to ourselves most days—but we did meet up with a few other journalists. Far more telling was the chance to meet new scientists and renew our relationships with those who have come before. We managed to grab dinner with a few of the known crowd as well as some brand new folks; I’m the champion of attaching myself to a group. We also overcame the lunchtime angst and sat with various folks.

My favorite dinnertime conversation was with Baptiste Journaux (University of Washington), who discussed some of his past research on glaciers. He said that often called for researchers to jump from helicopters and ski to the final location. Immediately I knew that I must find a way to write a feature so that I could jump out of a copter with them. I also spoke with someone who’s sister is striving to bring citizen science to many of the native people who find themselves often disconnected from the research that goes on around them—another story in the making.

The most difficult part post-conference is keeping the energy going when it comes to pitching. That will be the bulk of next week. I also still need to go through my pitches from the Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference—I have a few outstanding features to pursue—and send them out. I’m only home a week before heading off to Canada for a conference on chondrules, where I’ll be giving a talk on science writing, so I’ll have to work quick!

Stories out this week:

Smithsonian: How and When Did Saturn Get Those Magnificent Rings? – Based on research I learned about at the Lunar and Planetary Conference meeting last month Dragonfly Drone Could Explore Saturn Moon Titan – This is officially my new favorite mission proposal, FYI. I hope it makes it all the way through! Auroras from Jupiter’s Volcano Moon Shine Light on Its Interior – I missed this piece on Io’s aurorae going live earlier this month, but it was pretty illuminating (bad pun, I know) Refit Bomber Aircraft Will Help Scientists Study the Total Solar Eclipse – Seriously, airplanes and eclipses. How cool can you get?