With COVID-19 on the rise again, 'Super Bowl of astronomy' next month canceled

The Hubble Space Telescope has taken pictures of the oldest galaxies it can.
The Hubble Space Telescope has taken pictures of the oldest galaxies it can. (Image credit: NASA)

As COVID-19 infection rates rise once again, the leaders of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) have canceled the major conference scheduled for early January, sometimes nicknamed the "Super Bowl of astronomy" by space fans.

The Board of Trustees of the AAS voted to cancel the conference's in-person events, which were scheduled to take place in Salt Lake City from Jan. 9 to Jan. 13. The group announced the decision in a statement released on Dec. 22, noting that it was still deciding how to handle the events that had been planned to take place virtually. But the next day (Dec. 23), another statement announced that the entire conference would be canceled.

"The rapid rise of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and the health risks it poses to our staff, attendees, exhibitors, and support contractors coupled with the likely spread of the virus by attendees to others after the conference was deemed to be too significant a risk to hold the meeting," the board wrote in the first statement. "In addition, international and institutional travel restrictions have already impacted some of our speakers and attendees, limiting their ability to travel to Salt Lake City at all."

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AAS typically holds one conference in early January and a smaller conference in the summer; this year, according to the statements, the summer meeting will serve as "the major astronomical meeting of 2022." The event is scheduled to occur in Pasadena, California, from June 12 to June 16.

Some events associated with the winter meeting will be held virtually on an individual basis, particularly the press conferences, the statements noted, although the organization is also working to transition online town halls and some networking opportunities for early-career professionals, according to the statement.

AAS last held an in-person conference two years ago, when astronomers met in Honolulu in early January. Although the group was forced to pivot from in-person to virtual for the summer 2020 meeting as well, that decision was made with three months of warning, rather than only weeks. Since the Honolulu meeting, all of the organization's conferences have been held "virtually anywhere."

Whether the June 2022 meeting will meet the same fate remains to be seen. In the Dec. 23 statement, the organization wrote that it will "convene a Task Force ... to develop ideas for how to hold the June 2022 meeting and future meetings in a way that prioritizes effective networking, safety, and inclusion."

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.