UW News

Department of Astronomy


April 11, 2019

Stars and stories: UW astronomer Emily Levesque gathering material for book on ‘true tales of observational astronomy’

Emily Levesque, University of Washington assistant professor of astronomy, is gathering stories for a book to be titled "The Last Stargazers: True Tales of the Colorful and Vanishing World of Observational Astronomy," which will be published in 2020.

Emily Levesque, UW assistant professor of astronomy, is gathering material for a new book to be called “The Last Stargazers: True Tales of the Colorful and Vanishing World of Observational Astronomy.”


February 7, 2019

All the data in the sky, alerted via UW eyes

An image of a galaxy.

The Zwicky Transient Facility, based at the Palomar Observatory, has identified over a thousand new objects and phenomena in the night sky, including more than 1,100 new supernovae and 50 near-Earth asteroids. University of Washington scientists are part of the ZTF team and led the development of the collaboration’s alert system, which informs science teams of possible new objects or changes to known objects in the sky.


January 10, 2019

Astronomers find signatures of a ‘messy’ star that made its companion go supernova

An image of a galaxy in outer space, with a bright supernova visible at its outer edge.

On Jan. 10 at the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, an international team of astronomers announced that they have identified the type of companion star that made its partner in a binary system, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, explode. Through repeated observations of SN 2015cp, a supernova 545 million light years away, the team detected hydrogen-rich debris that the companion star had shed prior to the explosion.


January 8, 2019

Triangulum Galaxy shows stunning face in detailed Hubble portrait

An image of a nearby galaxy called M33.

As part of a University of Washington-led project, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has produced a stunningly detailed portrait of the Triangulum Galaxy, displaying a full spiral face aglow with the light of nearly 25 million individually resolved stars.


November 20, 2018

Study brings new climate models of small star TRAPPIST 1’s seven intriguing worlds

The small, cool M dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its seven worlds. New research from the University of Washington speculates on possible climates of these worlds and how they may have evolved.

Not all stars are like the sun, so not all planetary systems can be studied with the same expectations. New research from a University of Washington-led team of astronomers gives updated climate models for the seven planets around the star TRAPPIST-1.


July 9, 2018

Oxygen levels on early Earth rose and fell several times before the successful Great Oxidation Event

The Jeerinah Formation in Western Australia, where a UW-led team found a nitrogen isotope "excursion." “Nitrogen isotopes tell a story about oxygenation of the surface ocean, and this oxygenation spans hundreds of kilometers across a marine basin and lasts for somewhere less than 50 million years," said lead author Matt Koehler.

Earth’s oxygen levels rose and fell more than once hundreds of millions of years before the planetwide success of the Great Oxidation Event about 2.4 billion years ago, new research from the University of Washington shows.


June 25, 2018

UW part of NASA network coordinating search for life on exoplanets

This image is an artist’s conception of what life could look like on the surface of a distant planet.

Researchers with the UW-led Virtual Planetary Laboratory are central to a group of papers published by NASA researchers today in the journal Astrobiology outlining the history — and suggesting the future — of the search for life on exoplanets, or those orbiting stars other than the sun.


May 14, 2018

Orbital variations can trigger ‘snowball’ states in habitable zones around sunlike stars

An artist’s impression of Earth as a frigid "‘snowball" planet. New research from the University of Washington indicates that aspects of a planet's axial tilt or orbit could trigger such a snowball state, where oceans freeze and surface life is impossible.

Aspects of an otherwise Earthlike planet’s tilt and orbital dynamics can severely affect its potential habitability — even triggering abrupt “snowball states” where oceans freeze and surface life is impossible, according to new research from UW astronomers.


May 1, 2018

UW astrobiologist Victoria Meadows receives SETI Institute’s Frank Drake Award

Victoria Meadows, UW astrobiologist and professor of astronomy.

Victoria Meadows, University of Washington astrobiologist, professor of astronomy and leader of NASA’s UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, has been named recipient of the 2018 Frank Drake Award from the SETI Institute. She is the first woman to receive the award.


April 12, 2018

Circumbinary castaways: Short-period binary systems can eject orbiting worlds

This artist's concept illustrates Kepler-16b, the first planet known to orbit two stars - what's called a circumbinary planet. The planet, which can be seen in the foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. New research from the University of Washington indicates that certain shot-period binary star systems eject circumbinary planets as a consequence of the host stars' evolution.

Planets orbiting “short-period” binary stars, or stars locked in close orbital embrace, can be ejected off into space as a consequence of their host stars’ evolution, according to new research from the University of Washington.


March 29, 2018

Stellar break-up likely behind ‘runaway’ star’s fast pace, researcher says

An image of a galaxy taken from Earth.

During a recent survey of supermassive stars, an international team of astronomers discovered a star that is in quite a hurry. As they report in a new paper, the team tracked one yellow supergiant star cruising along at about 300,000 miles per hour, a velocity that would get you from the Earth to the Moon in about 48 minutes.


February 15, 2018

Five UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

Bronze W fall

Five faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 15, include Maya Cakmak, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Jiun-Haw Chu, assistant professor of clean energy and physics; Arka Majumdar, assistant professor of electrical engineering and physics; Jessica Werk, assistant professor of astronomy; and Chelsea Wood, assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.


February 6, 2018

UW astronomer Woody Sullivan assists in renovation of Olympia’s Territorial Sundial

Woody Sullivan, UW professor emeritus of astronomy, consults with Larry Tate, principal at Seattle's Fabrication Specialties Ltd., right, on the necessary angle and placement of a new gnomon to ensure the time-keeping accuracy of Olympia's Territorial Sundial.

After six months of repair and restoration — assisted by UW astronomer and sundial expert Woody Sullivan — Olympia’s iconic Territorial Sundial is back in place.


February 5, 2018

Watery worlds: UW astronomer Eric Agol assists in new findings of TRAPPIST-1 planetary system

This artist's concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets' diameters, masses and distances from the host star, as of February 2018.

A team of astronomers including Eric Agol of the University of Washington has found that the seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 are all made mostly of rock, and some could even have more water — which can give life a chance — than Earth itself. The research was led by Simon Grimm of…


January 3, 2018

Space dust, not aliens: Two UW astronomers assist in new research on ‘mysterious’ star

Bronze W fall

UW astronomers Brett Morris and James Davenport assisted in new research on “Tabby’s Star,” named for Louisiana State University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian.


November 30, 2017

Giant black hole pair photobombs Andromeda Galaxy

blackhole_binary-TILE

A cosmic photobomb found as a background object in images of the nearby Andromeda galaxy has revealed what could be the most tightly coupled pair of supermassive black holes ever seen.


November 14, 2017

With launch of new night sky survey, UW researchers ready for era of ‘big data’ astronomy

ZTF-firstlight-band

The first astronomers had a limited toolkit: their eyes. They could only observe those stars, planets and celestial events bright enough to pick up unassisted. But today’s astronomers use increasingly sensitive and sophisticated instruments to view and track a bevy of cosmic wonders, including objects and events that were too dim or distant for their…


July 24, 2017

Dark matter is likely ‘cold,’ not ‘fuzzy,’ scientists report after new simulations

the empty space between galaxies

Scientists have used data from the intergalactic medium — the vast, largely empty space between galaxies — to narrow down what dark matter could be.


May 22, 2017

Kepler telescope spies details of TRAPPIST-1 system’s outermost planet

The ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 and its seven planets. A UW-led team has learned details of TRAPPIST-1h, the system's outermost planet.

A University of Washington-led international team of astronomers has used data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope to observe and confirm details of the outermost of seven exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1.


May 17, 2017

Visiting astronomer at UW part of ‘Styrofoam’ planet discovery

An artist's rendering of KELT-11b, a "Styrofoam"-density exoplanet orbiting a bright star in the southern hemisphere.

David James, a visiting scientist with the UW Department of Astronomy, assisted in the just-announced Lehigh University-led discovery of an exoplanet 320 light-years away with a density so light it is being called a “Styrofoam planet.”


February 22, 2017

UW astronomer Eric Agol assists in new seven-planet NASA discovery using ‘distracted driving’ technique

This artist's concept shows what the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system may look like, based on available data about the planets’ diameters, masses and distances from the host star. UW astronomer Eric Agol assisted with the big new discovery.

UW astronomy professor Eric Agol is part of the large team of researchers that has just announced confirmation of several Earth-sized, potentially habitable planets orbiting a star about 40 light-years away.


February 21, 2017

Three UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

campus-TILE

Three faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 21, include Ali Farhadi, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Emily Levesque, assistant professor of astronomy; and John Tuthill, assistant professor of physiology and biophysics.


February 15, 2017

Early Earth as exoplanet: NASA highlights just-published UW Virtual Planetary Laboratory research

When haze built up in the atmosphere of Archean Earth, billions of years ago, the young planet might have looked like this artist's interpretation - a pale orange dot. A team of astronomers including members of the UW's Virtual Planetary Laboratory thinks the haze was self-limiting, cooling the surface by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit – not enough to cause runaway glaciation. The team’s modeling suggests that atmospheric haze might be helpful for identifying earthlike exoplanets that could be habitable.

Recently published research from the UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) using ancient Earth as a stand-in for hypothetically habitable exoplanets has been highlighted by NASA in a feature article. Leading the research was Giada Arney, who was a UW astronomy doctoral student when doing the work and is now with NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.


December 1, 2016

The many worlds of UW astronomer — and astrobiologist — Woody Sullivan

Woody Sullivan

UW astronomer and astrobiologist Woody Sullivan discusses recent work and future plans in a multifaceted career that’s changing gears, but far from winding down.


August 29, 2016

New discovery Proxima b is in host star’s habitable zone — but could it really be habitable?

Artist's impression of the planet orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri.

The world’s attention is now on Proxima Centauri b, a possibly Earth-like planet about 4.22 light-years away. It’s in its star’s habitable zone — but could it in fact be habitable? If so, the planet evolved very different than Earth, say researchers at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory.


February 29, 2016

Life or illusion? Avoiding ‘false positives’ in the search for living worlds

New research from the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory will help astronomers better identify and rule out "false positives" in the ongoing search for life. Shown is a NASA illustration of Kepler 62E about 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

New research from the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory will help astronomers better identify — and thus rule out — “false positives” in the search for life beyond Earth.


February 23, 2016

Four UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

campus-TILE

Four faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 23, include Bingni Brunton, assistant professor of biology; Christopher Laumann, assistant professor of physics; Matthew McQuinn, assistant professor of astronomy; and Emina Torlak, assistant professor of computer science and engineering….


February 12, 2016

Caught in the act: UW astronomers find a rare supernova ‘impostor’ in a nearby galaxy

The galaxy NGC 300

UW astronomers Breanna Binder and Ben Williams have identified a rare type of ‘supernova impostor’ in a nearby galaxy, with implications for how scientists look at the short, complex lives of massive stars.


February 2, 2016

Reflections on the habitability of — Planet Earth

Astronomers at the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory have created an index to rank the habitability of exoplanets, or those outside the solar system.

We know the Earth is habitable because — well, here we are. But would it look like a good candidate for life from hundreds of light-years away?


January 8, 2016

Quiet quasar has apparently eaten its fill

quasar and spectrum

Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announced that a distant quasar ran out of gas. Their conclusions, reported Jan. 8 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida, clarify why quasar SDSS J1011+5442 changed so dramatically in the handful of years between observations.


October 29, 2015

UW scientists are the first to simulate 3-D exotic clouds on an exoplanet

Artistic depiction of exoplanet GJ1214b.

A nearby exoplanet has an atmosphere that might be similar to Earth’s before life evolved. In an attempt to simulate the structure of this exoplanet’s atmosphere, UW researchers became the first to simulate three-dimensional exotic clouds on another world.


October 19, 2015

In astronomy-themed concert, Benaroya Hall launches audience to the cosmos

Andromeda galaxy.

A Nov. 7 concert in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall promises to offer the audience a decidedly stellar musical experience. The event, “Origins: Life and the Universe,” will pair live performances of new compositions with video and slideshow scenes depicting cosmic events like the Big Bang, as well as scenes from distant worlds and Earth’s own life-filled…


October 5, 2015

Where to look for life? UW astronomers devise ‘habitability index’ to guide future search

The James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror, is scheduled to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in October of 2018 and will be the premier NASA observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers around the world.

Astronomers with the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have created the “habitility index for transiting planets” to rank exoplanets to help prioritize which warrant close inspection in the search for life beyond Earth.


September 28, 2015

Earth-like planets around small stars likely have protective magnetic fields, aiding chance for life

magneticfields_RoryBarnes

Earth-like planets orbiting close to small stars probably have magnetic fields that protect them from stellar radiation and help maintain surface conditions that could be conducive to life, according to research by UW astronomers.


September 3, 2015

Earth observations show how nitrogen may be detected on exoplanets, aiding search for life

The Earth as seen by the Polychromatic Imaging Camera aboard NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite, July 2015. Recent research by UW grad student Edward Schwieterman shows that observations of nitrogen in Earth's atmosphere from afar might help astronomers detect the "invisible" gas in the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system.

Observations of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere by a NASA spacecraft 17 million miles away are giving astronomers fresh clues to how that gas might reveal itself on faraway planets, thus aiding in the search for life.


July 23, 2015

UW astronomer, students report irregularities in ‘rare, exotic’ binary system

The galaxy NGC 300

UW astronomers were recently reminded that the diplomatic axiom to “trust, but verify” also applies to scientific inquiry when they analyzed fresh data from a distant galaxy. As they reported in July in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a puzzling stellar phenomenon may not be what other astronomers had reported. They studied…


July 6, 2015

In a cosmic ‘call to arms,’ UW astronomer proposes new deep-space telescope to scan the sky for signs of life

Artist's rendition of the planet Kepler-69c.

On July 6, a team of astronomers proposed a new type of mission to crack some of the universe’s most intriguing mysteries and search for life on distant worlds.


June 23, 2015

Visualizing the cosmos: UW astronomer Andrew Connolly and the promise of big data

UW astronomy professor Andrew Connolly at TED2014 at the Vancouver, B.C., convention center.

A conversation with UW astronomer Andrew Connolly on the coming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the promise of big data to the study of the universe.


June 22, 2015

Spectrum of life: Nonphotosynthetic pigments could be biosignatures of life on other worlds

Laguna Colorada is a shallow salt lake in the southwest of Bolivia. One of several places on Earth whose colors are dominated by nonphotosynthetic pigments. Eddie Schwieterman of the University of Washington has research on how such nonphotosynthetic biosignatures might appear on exoplanets, or those outside our solar system.

To find life in the universe, it helps to know what it might look like. If there are organisms on other planets that do not rely wholly on photosynthesis — as some on Earth do not — how might those worlds appear from light-years away?


June 8, 2015

Atmospheric signs of volcanic activity could aid search for life

An eruption of the Calbuco Volcano in southern Chile. A team led by the UW's Amit Misra used data from volcanic eruptions on Earth to predict what an Earth-like exoplanet might look like during such eruptions.

Planets with volcanic activity are considered better candidates for life than worlds without such heated internal goings-on.
Now, graduate students at the UW have found a way to detect volcanic activity in the atmospheres of faraway planets when they transit, or pass in front of their host stars.



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