Wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Fomalhaut

This wide-field view shows the sky around the bright star Fomalhaut in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus (The Southern Fish). This picture was created from photographs forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Fomalhaut lies about 25 light-years from the Earth and is surrounded by a huge disc of dust.

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

COVID-19 Texting System. A team of researchers at the University of Arizona have created a two-way texting system to gather information on and track the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona. Researchers at UArizona Health Sciences and the Data Science Institute created the AZCOVIDTXT system so locals can quickly report the health and wellness conditions in their homes by participating in surveys on their mobile phones, which helps healthcare professionals identify areas where more resources may be needed. This system connects users with needed resources and provides vital pandemic information to a team of public health researchers. A promotional campaign is encouraging Arizonans to join the crowd sourcing project, currently seeking to have 100,000 Pima County households enroll. Participants can anonymously enroll to provide weekly information on the wellness of themselves and others in their households during the pandemic. According to Pima County Health Department director Bob England, this project is an example of the kind of creative and strategic thinking that is necessary in navigating this pandemic, and the connection to direct data and communication in our community is “incredibly valuable.” In addition to health questions, users will be asked about access to food, medicine, sanitary and other essential supplies, and about stress and anxiety levels. To participate, Arizonans can text “JOIN” to 1-833-410-0546.

Science Resources for Teachers and Parents. The Arizona Science Teachers Association has created an extensive spreadsheet of free resources for local science teachers currently forced to teach lessons from home. While many of the links are for national resources, such as to Smithsonian Science Now and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, many more are Arizona exclusive: online lessons from Arizona State University and resources from the Southern Arizona Research Science and Engineering Foundation. The AZSTA resource spreadsheet also includes science book resources for all, and resources specifically for students and parents. To access the science, technology, engineering and mathematics resource spreadsheet, visit azsta.org/resources/free-science-resources

Vanished Planet. Fomalhaut b, once heralded as one of the first exoplanets to ever be discovered, may not be a planet at all. According to new research by two University of Arizona astronomers, the mysterious object located outside our solar system may instead be an “expanding cloud of very fine dust particles from two icy bodies that smashed into each other.” Fomalhaut b, which orbits the star Fomalhaut, 25 light years away, was first directly observed by the Hubble Telescope and announced to the public in 2008. Until then, evidence for exoplanets had mostly been inferred through indirect detection, which made Fomalhaut b even more scientifically important. However, Fomalhaut b has been a subject of debate since its discovery; astronomers have argued that Fomalhaut b is unusually small and bright for an exoplanet. This is what led UA astronomers to argue it is in fact a cloud of particles from an icy collision. According to András Gáspár, an assistant astronomer at the UA’s Steward Observatory and lead author of the research paper announcing the discovery, these collisions are exceedingly rare, so it’s a big deal to observe evidence of one.