For a week or so specialty outlets and aggregators - joined this morning by the NYTimes in a brief item - have carried news about a teeny telescope not technically so different from a high-end camera one might see in the media photo scrum at a baseball game. It discovered the transits, or face-crossings of stars by things orbiting them, of two objects sharing our general sector of the Milky Way. One is a hot Jupiter like planet. The other is an even hotter brown dwarf that is more massive than planets but hasn't the heft to generate sufficient internal temperature to light up like a genuine star. I read through some of the coverage this morning, and came away feeling ill-fed. Two press releases from two US research universities have most of the basics. None of the stories go much beyond what's there, although some reporters did scrounge up their own quotes.
The news behind the news is that a few years ago astronomers at Ohio State University and at Vanderbilt University split the chores for what they called the KELT project. That's for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope. There are two of them. Ohio State manages one of them in Arizona, at the little non-profit Winer Observatory established nearly 30 years ago as a home for small but serious, professional astronomical telescopes. Vanderbilt's version watches the Southern Hemisphere sky from the South African Astronomical Observatory, and is a small part of Vandy's Initiative in Data-Intensive Astrophysics. KELT-South's role there is to show that with good enough software and processors, a little telescope can do big things (the project's main focus is doing big things with equipment that is major league on processing, petabytes of data, and hardware too). But each university's team cooperates in science with both instruments, so both put out press releases on the findings with KELT-North in Arizona.
Both universities' press releases are heavy on the discoveries. In fact, except for the order in which they mention the researchers who presented the discoveries at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Alaska last week, they are identical - and apparently the work primarily of the press office at Vanderbilt and explicitly by its science news boss, old-time newsman David Salisbury. (*CORRECTION - See comments. The release was collaborative, mainly by OSU's Pam Frost Gorder and David Salisbury at Vanderbilt). There is nothing wrong with the press release. Dave is a pro. It provides lots of info. And as its keyed to presentation of discovery at a meeting, that's its stress. But c'mon. We've read about scads of weird worlds of other stars - hot jupiters mostly, skimming close to their suns. The press release further says two planets were bagged. Since when is a brown dwarf a planet in any strict sense? If it is, that's a story in itself. They are usually figured to have resulted from the kind of partner, but essentially independently self-organized collapse of proto clouds following the mechanistic sequences that produce binary or other multiple star systems, not the cascade of collapse that makes a star and then spawns planets in its lumpy accretion disk.Or something like that, as I confess I'm going on memory.
The real news in this corner is the payoff for these tiny, refractor telescopes set up in modest facilities that aren't even on tops of mountains. They are doing work that augments what the far more expensive (and vastly more capable) Kepler space telescope is doing to detect extrasolar planets. You'd think somebody would call one or two of the architects of the KELTs and ask how's it feel to see professional-grade results from them? How big is that lens? What's next? It says here KELT 'scopes are only able to get meaningful data from very bright stars, no surprise there. But what kind of stars are these that are in the news? Big ol' A or B stars, or dwarfs like our sun? (One runs that info down by searching the arXiv server. See results in Grist below. They're littlish F-stars, both of them, with one in an interesting stage of evolution. The larger companion is not called a plain planet in the technical literature but a "low-mass brown dwarf or super-massive planet,' a taxonomic waffle that merits discussion somewhere by a reporter.) Are there imitators or other equivalents to these little camera-telescopes and what can they NOT do? A hot jupiter and a brown dwarf, that's not big deal. These tiny instruments, they're kind of sexy.Stories tend to play them up but provide little or no info on them beyond what's in the press release.
- NYTimes - Sindya N. Bhanoo: Small Telescope Helps Make Big Discovery ; In today's Science Times. Ms. Bhanoo surely got these good quotes through her own ears. But a puzzle - why say in the lede that the research found two planets and then use a quote in which one of the reesarchers, at OSU, explains that the brown dwarf is of a class "too heavy to be planets." A bell should go off - and prompt writer or editor to scratch or modify the 'two-planet's' ref from the opening paragraph. As this item is by definition a shorty in the Times, one can't fault Bhanoo for what she does not report.
- Space.com - Denise Chow: 'Weird' Alien Planets Around distant Stars Found by Small Telescope ; Good detail on the mutual tidal lock that the brown dwarf and its star are in, perpetually keeping themselves face to face. Also good on the potential to measure the chemistry of the atmosphere of one of the worlds with larger, more standard telescopes. It is not hard to find a picture of one of these little telescopes. Space.com should have done so - rather than use a generic artist's impression of what one of them looks like.
- Astronomy Now - Amanda Doyle: Extremely Little telescope makes first planetary discoveries ;
- Columbus Dispatch: Spencer Hunt : OSU astronomers find two unusual planets ; Tiny item.
- Epoch Times - Belinda McCallum: Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope Spots Bizarre Worlds ; One of the more original rewrites of the press release. No enterprise is evident, but the selection and sequence is lively. Epoch Times, incidentally, is mainly a China-oriented news service created by ex-patriots from the Falun Gong spiritual fitness movement that China's government finds frightening.
- ... plus many presentations of unaltered or lightly rewritten press release at aggregator sites such as DailyDisruption, Futurity ; Phys.org ; TGDaily ;
And, finally, a story by a reporter who went to the meeting and wrote a story he figured out himself....
- AAAS ScienceNOW - Govert Schilling: Brown Dwarfs Being Gobbled Up by Parent Stars ; For Schilling, the KELT discovery is just one illustration for a larger, enterprise-based theme. (*CORRECTION - Schilling is a savvy veteran - but per comment below, much of this story came off a press conference).
And even more finally, a story from the same meeting by a reporter who found a story nobody else got at all, far as I know..
- ScienceNews - Nadia Drake: Giant celestial disk hard to explain / Star's oversized debris ring challenges theories of planet formation ; A find mystery, well laid out, with links to primary literature and to another story by Drake on a similar incidence of celestial gardening.
Grist for the Mill:
Ohio State U. Press Release ; Vanderbilt Press Release, KELT-South Home Page ; KELT-North site ; arXiv paper on KELT-2AB: A Hot Jupiter ...; arXiv paper on KELT-1b: A Strongly Irradiated, Highly Inflated, Short-Peirod 27-Jupiter-mass Companion...;
- Charlie Petit