UW Today

Department of Astronomy

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


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


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.

April 22, 2015

UW key player in new NASA coalition to search for life on distant worlds

The search for life beyond our solar system requires cooperation across scientific disciplines -- the way the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory has been working since 2001. Now, NASA's NExSS collaboration will take a similarly interdisciplinary approach to the search for life. Participants include those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left), and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right).

The NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, based at the University of Washington, has long brought an interdisciplinary approach to the study of planets and search for life outside our solar system. Now, a new NASA initiative inspired by the UW lab is embracing that same team approach to bring together 10 universities and two research institutions in the ongoing search for life on planets around other stars.

April 13, 2015

Violent methane storms on Titan may solve dune direction mystery

A view of Titan. Saturn's largest moon, with its ringed host in the background. New research from the University of Washington may solve a riddle of the direction of sand dunes on the moon's surface.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has a hazy atmosphere and surface rivers, mountains, lakes and sand dunes. But the dunes and prevailing surface winds don’t point in the same direction. New research from UW astronomer Benjamin Charnay may have solved this mystery.

March 11, 2015

‘Chaotic Earths’: Some habitable exoplanets could experience wildly unpredictable climates


New research by UW astronomer Rory Barnes and co-authors describes possible planetary systems where a gravitational nudge from one planet with just the right orbital configuration and tilt could have a mild to devastating effect on the orbit and climate of another, possibly habitable world.

January 28, 2015

Some potentially habitable planets began as gaseous, Neptune-like worlds

Strong irradiation from the host star can cause planets known as mini-Neptunes in the habitable zone to shed their gaseous envelopes and become potentially habitable worlds.

Two phenomena known to inhibit the potential habitability of planets — tidal forces and vigorous stellar activity — might instead help chances for life on certain planets orbiting low-mass stars, University of Washington astronomers have found.

December 2, 2014

‘Mirage Earth’ exoplanets may have burned away chances for life

Illustration of a low-mass, M dwarf star, seen from an orbiting rocky planet.

Planets orbiting close to low-mass stars are prime targets in the search for life. But new research led by an astronomy graduate student at the UW indicates some such planets may have long since lost their chance at hosting life because of intense heat during their formative years.

November 14, 2014

Portable planetarium takes astronomy to school


The UW Astronomy Department’s Mobile Planetarium visits Sammamish High School in Bellevue, where students give their own planetarium presentations.

August 14, 2014

Stardust sample analysis finds likely interstellar dust

An artist's conception of the Stardust spacecraft meeting the comet Wild-2.

The Stardust mission, the brainchild of a UW astronomer, enlisted help from thousands of citizen scientists to find likely evidence of interstellar dust.

August 5, 2014

Funding approval a big step forward for Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

A photograph and a rendering mix of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

With a key funding approval, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an international astronomy project of which the University of Washington is a founding member, is taking a major step toward becoming a reality.

July 31, 2014

Companion planets can increase old worlds’ chance at life

For certain ancient planets orbiting smaller, older stars, the gravitational influence of an outer companion planet might generate enough energy to keep the inner world habitable even when its own internal fires burn out. This is an illustration of a planet in the habitable zone of a star about the size of the sun. But what would such a world look like at its surface? Here, UW astronomy Rory Barnes provides a speculative illustration. "The star would appear about 10 times larger in the sky than our Sun. The sky is mostly dark because cool stars don't emit much blue light, so the atmosphere doesn't scatter it."

Having a companion in old age is good for people — and, it turns out, might extend the chance for life on certain Earth-sized planets in the cosmos as well.

July 18, 2014

Sloan Digital Sky Survey — including UW — now to view entire sky


The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a consortium of institutions of which the University of Washington is part, will soon expand its view to see the entire sky, and even peer into the Milky Way’s galactic center.

April 21, 2014

‘Upside-down planet’ reveals new method for studying binary star systems

An image of the Sun used to simulate what the sun-like star in a self-lensing binary star system might look like in a self-lensing binary star system.

What looked at first like a sort of upside-down planet has instead revealed a new method for studying binary star systems, discovered by a UW student astronomer.

March 4, 2014

‘Dimer molecules’ aid study of exoplanet pressure, hunt for life

An artist's concept of an exoplanet, or planet outside the solar system.

UW astronomers have developed a new method of gauging the atmospheric pressure of exoplanets, or worlds beyond the solar system, by looking for a certain type of molecule. And if there is life out in space, it may one day be revealed by this method.

March 3, 2014

UW astronomer Eric Agol’s seven-planet system part of major NASA discovery

An artist's illustration of multiple-transiting planet systems. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer.

UW astronomer Eric Agol played a key role in the windfall of 715 new exoplanets recently announced by NASA. Agol was on a team that found seven of those worlds, all in orbit around the same star.

January 8, 2014

Astronomers measure far-off galaxies to 1 percent precision

An artist's concept of the latest, highly accurate measurement of the universe from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. The spheres show the current size of the "baryon acoustic oscillations" from the early universe, which now can be used as a "standard ruler" (white line) to measure the distances to all the galaxies in the universe.

University of Washington astronomers and colleagues have measured the distance to galaxies six billion light-years away — about halfway back to the Big Bang — to an accuracy of just 1 percent.

December 9, 2013

Astronomers solve temperature mystery of planetary atmospheres

The sun is just below the horizon in this photo and creates an orange-red glow above the Earth's surface, which is the troposphere, or lowest layer of the atmosphere. The tropopause is the brown line along the upper edge of the troposphere. Above both are the stratosphere, higher atmospheric layers, and the blackness of space.

An atmospheric peculiarity the Earth shares with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune is likely common to billions of planets, University of Washington astronomers have found, and knowing that may help in the search for potentially habitable worlds.

November 25, 2013

Study: Greenhouse gas might have warmed early Mars enough to allow liquid water


The mystery of how the surface of Mars, long dead and dry, could have flowed with water billions of years ago may have been solved by research that included a University of Washington astronomer.

July 29, 2013

Planetary ‘runaway greenhouse’ more easily triggered, research shows

A view of the surface of Venus from NASA's Magellan mapping spacecraft.

It might be easier than previously thought for a planet to overheat into the uninhabitable “runaway greenhouse” stage, according to new research.

July 18, 2013

A warmer planetary haven around cool stars, as ice warms rather than cools

This artist's concept illustrates a planet orbiting a red dwarf star.

In a bit of cosmic irony, planets orbiting cooler stars may be more likely to remain ice-free than planets around hotter stars. This is due to the interaction of a star’s light with ice and snow on the planet’s surface.

April 25, 2013

Astronomer studies far-off worlds through ‘characterization by proxy’

A dwarf galaxy.

A UW astronomer is using Earth’s interstellar neighbors to learn the nature of certain stars too far away to be directly measured or observed, and the planets they may host.

April 18, 2013

Astronomers discover five-planet system with most Earth-like exoplanet yet

Kepler 62e and 62f compared with the Earth. UW astronomer Eric Agol discovered 62f.

A University of Washington astronomer has discovered perhaps the most Earth-like planet yet found outside the solar system by the Kepler Space Telescope.

November 19, 2012

Can life emerge on planets around cooling stars?


UW astronomers find that planets orbiting white and brown dwarfs are unlikely to be good candidates for sustaining life.