UW Today

Virtual Planetary Laboratory

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.

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 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?

November 12, 2015

‘Pale orange dot’: Early Earth’s haze may give clue to habitability elsewhere in space

An image of Saturn's haze-shrouded moon Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory studied records of the haze on early Earth to see how such atmospheric conditions might affect an exoplanet, or one beyond our solar system. They found that such a haze might show the world is habitable, or that life itself is present.

An atmospheric haze around a faraway planet — like the one which probably shrouded and cooled the young Earth — could show that the world is potentially habitable, or even be a sign of life itself.

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 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.

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.

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.

April 15, 2014

Astronomers: ‘Tilt-a-worlds’ could harbor life

Tilted orbits such as those shown might make some planets wobble like a top that's almost done spinning, an effect that could maintain liquid water on the surface, thus giving life a chance -- according to new research by UW astronomer Rory Barnes.

A fluctuating tilt in a planet’s orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah’s Weber State University and NASA. In fact, sometimes it helps.

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.

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.