'Super Bowl of Astronomy' kicks off online due to global pandemic

The 237th American Astronomical Society meeting, the "Super Bowl of astronomy," will be held entirely online this week, a first, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 237th American Astronomical Society meeting, the "Super Bowl of astronomy," will be held entirely online this week, a first, due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT))

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is making the most of online opportunities during its 237th meeting, which will fully take place virtually this week due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The self-proclaimed "Super Bowl of Astronomy," which runs through Friday (Jan. 15), typically covers a wide range of topics, and this year's edition will be no different even though it will be fully online. The full agenda is available here. Some hot topics attendees can expect include fast radio bursts, dark matter, sky surveys, gravitational waves, and trying to understand why different teams have different measurements to calculate the expansion of the universe, among others. 

AAS was already including iPosters (PowerPoint-like posters with combinations of text, images, video and audio) at its in-person meetings, along with short science talks, before the pandemic erupted last March. The society tested these meeting formats online with the June 2020 meeting, which was quickly moved online only weeks before starting as quarantine restrictions expanded across the United States.

Full coverage: The 237th American Astronomical Society meeting of 2021

Attendees can expect even more adaptations to online for AAS 237, press officer Rick Fienberg told Space.com in an e-mail interview.

"For AAS 237, we are adding 'Turbo Talks' – 2-minute introductory videos by authors to draw attention and spur interest in their iPosters," he said. Other changes attendees can expect include Slack channels during the talks for people to "kibitz", Fienberg said, and spreading the meeting over five days instead of four to reduce the time attendees must spend at the computer each day.

The virtual exhibition hall will be very different than what attendees saw in June. This time around, AAS will use a meeting environment called vFairs, which allows sponsors and exhibitors to create custom-branded virtual booths, Fienberg said.

"They can post brochures and other files for download, have staff at the booth at certain times of day to interact with attendees one-on-one or in small groups, and offer webinars to introduce larger audiences of attendees to their products and services," he said. 

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The ultimate goal is to attract more attendees to the virtual exhibition hall, mirroring the "coffee break" and "cocktail hour" experience one typically gets by wandering into the physical hall during an in-person meeting, he added.

"At our first virtual meeting in June, exhibitors didn't get the traffic they’re used to, for obvious reasons," Fienberg said. "So for January, we've set aside some dedicated time each day where the only activity is in the exhibit hall, and we've successfully encouraged nearly all our exhibitors to offer webinars, which are being listed in the program along with everything else so as not to get lost in the shuffle."

Student attendees can also look forward to the first-ever virtual "graduate school" and undergraduate research "experience fair" which will allow students to share CVs, meeting via text and video chat, and learn more about participating institutions – all without the need of paying for in-person travel. People at all stages of their career can also take advantage of various social networking events, such as a trivia night, speed networking and a virtual scavenger hunt.

Looking back at the June meeting, Fienberg said the AAS staff "really had to scramble" to shift all activities online, including assembling the infrastructure, find vendors, and to bring members and other stakeholders along for the ride. The hard work paid off, as roughly 1,400 people attended the virtual activities – double the expected attendance AAS thought it would see in-person in Madison, Wisc.

Fienberg said AAS has listened closely to attendee feedback in June to prepare for January; another change they are making is including two days of workshops that were not offered in June. The winter meeting typically has higher attendance than the summer meeting, with more sessions and activities as well.

"With five days of science sessions and two slots daily for press conferences, I’ve scheduled 10 briefings rather than my usual eight, so I have 25% more presenters to communicate with – plus their institutional public information officers," Fienberg said. "All of us involved in planning and executing the meeting are really quite exhausted already, but that's true when doing in-person meetings too. What we've learned over these two meetings is that a virtual meeting involves just as much work as an in-person one."

Fienberg added that some attendees have expressed worry about high registration fees for the virtual meeting, but he noted the infrastructure is not free. While venues and caterers are not required for online conferences, AAS is still working with vendors and software to deliver the best experience possible. "It's a fairly even trade," he said of the cost to AAS.

With a vaccine slowly rolling out in the United States and other countries, AAS is thinking ahead to when in-person meetings will be possible again in the coming months. Even before the pandemic erupted, members already were asking for virtual options due to cost and environmental concerns associated with activities like flying, Fienberg said. Journalists have been able to attend virtual press conferences for many years now, and Fienberg said the pandemic has caused even more types of attendees to strongly consider the online option.

"I think it’s inevitable that the meeting of the future will be hybrid," he said. "We just have to figure out how to make it work financially."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace