UW News

astronomy & astrophysics

January 27, 2021

Purported phosphine on Venus more likely to be ordinary sulfur dioxide, new study shows

An image of the planet Venus, showing its thick atmosphere.

A University of Washington-led team has revisited and comprehensively reinterpreted the radio telescope observations underlying a widely reported 2019 claim that phosphine gas was present in the atmosphere of Venus. In a paper accepted to the Astrophysical Journal, they report that sulfur dioxide, a common gas in the atmosphere of Venus, is likely what was detected instead of phosphine.

January 22, 2021

The 7 rocky planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 may be made of similar stuff

An image showing three illustrations of potential interiors of the exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 star system.

A study accepted by the Planetary Science Journal shows that the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system share similar densities. That could mean they all contain roughly the same ratio of materials thought to be common to rocky planets, such as iron, oxygen, magnesium and silicon — though they appear to differ notably from Earth.

January 14, 2021

Astronomers document the rise and fall of a rarely observed stellar dance

An image of stars in the night sky, showing a particularly bright binary at the center called HS Hydra.

Astronomers have catalogued 126 years of changes to a binary star system called HS Hydrae. Analyzing observations from astro-photographic plates in the late 1800s to TESS observations in 2019, they show that the two stars in HS Hydrae began to eclipse each other starting around a century ago, peaking in the 1960s. The degree of eclipsing then plummeted over the course of just a half century, and will cease around February 2021.

December 3, 2020

Leaving so soon? Unusual planetary nebula fades mere decades after it arrived

An image of the Stingray Nebula taken in 2016 by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope

The tiny Stingray Nebula unexpectedly appeared in the 1980s is by far the youngest planetary nebula in our sky. But a team of astronomers recently analyzed a more recent image of the nebula, taken in 2016 by Hubble, and found that it has faded significantly and changed shape over the course of just 20 years. If dimming continues at current rates, in 20 or 30 years the Stingray Nebula will be barely perceptible.

June 11, 2020

Scientists close in on 12 billion-year-old signal from the end of the universe’s ‘dark age’

A picture of a radio telescope in a remote region of Australia.

When the universe was in its infancy, it contained no stars at all. And an international team of scientists is closer than ever to detecting, measuring and studying a signal from this era that has been traveling through the cosmos ever since that starless era ended some 13 billion years ago.

May 27, 2020

Cosmic bursts unveil universe’s missing matter

A picture of a radio telescope in Australia pointing up to the Milky Way

An international team of astronomers has used mysterious fast radio bursts to solve a decades-old mystery of “missing matter,” material long predicted to exist in the universe but never detected — until now. The researchers have now found all of the missing “normal” matter in the vast space between stars and galaxies. The team, which includes scientists based in Australia, the United States and Chile, announced its findings in a paper published May 27 in the journal Nature.

March 6, 2020

Dimming Betelgeuse likely isn’t cold, just dusty, new study shows

An image of the star Betelgeuse in December 2019.

Late last year, news broke that the star Betelgeuse was fading significantly, ultimately dropping to around 40% of its usual brightness. The activity fueled popular speculation that the red supergiant would soon explode as a massive supernova. But astronomers have more benign theories to explain the star’s dimming behavior. And scientists at the University of…

December 6, 2019

Astronomy fellowship demonstrates effective measures to dismantle bias, increase diversity in STEM

a person smiling and looking at the camera

Joyce Yen — director of the University of Washington’s ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, an NSF-funded body to promote female STEM faculty on campus — recently worked with the Heising-Simons Foundation to dismantle bias and promote diversity in a prominent grant that the Foundation awards to postdoctoral researchers in planetary science. In this Q&A, Yen shares the many, sometimes counterintuitive ways bias can work against goals toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM fields.

October 28, 2019

Hubble captures galaxies’ ghostly gaze

An image of a galaxy in outer space

An image captured earlier this year by the Hubble Space Telescope may look like a ghostly apparition, but it is not. Hubble is looking at a titanic head-on collision between two galaxies.

October 24, 2019

NSF invests in cyberinfrastructure institute to harness cosmic data

the stars at night

The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and nine collaborating organizations, including the University of Washington, $2.8 million for a two-year “conceptualization phase” of the Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics.

September 26, 2019

Galaxy found to float in a tranquil sea of halo gas

A graphic showing a fast radio burst leaving its host galaxy and arriving at Earth.

An international team of astronomers has analyzed the signal from a fast radio burst — an enigmatic blast of cosmic radio waves lasting less than a millisecond — to characterize the diffuse gas in the halo of a massive galaxy.

August 13, 2019

James Webb Space Telescope could begin learning about TRAPPIST-1 atmospheres in a single year, study indicates

New research from UW astronomers models how telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to study the planets of the intriguing TRAPPIST-1 system.

New research from astronomers at the UW uses the intriguing TRAPPIST-1 planetary system as a kind of laboratory to model not the planets themselves, but how the coming James Webb Space Telescope might detect and study their atmospheres, on the path toward looking for life beyond Earth.

June 19, 2019

Abundance of gases in Enceladus’s ocean are a potential fuel — if life is there to consume it

This illustration shows NASA's Cassini spacecraft diving through the plume of Saturn's moon Enceladus, in 2015. New research from the University of Washington, to be presented at the coming AbSciCon2019 conference, indicates that the moon's subsurface ocean of probably has higher than previously known concentrations of carbon dioxide and hydrogen and a more Earthlike pH level, possibly providing conditions favorable to life.

The subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus probably has higher than previously known concentrations of carbon dioxide and hydrogen and a more Earthlike pH level, possibly providing conditions favorable to life, according to new research from planetary scientists at the UW.

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 30, 2019

UW-based group launches national challenge to recreate first moon landing — with drones and Lego robots

robot with lunar lander

A UW-based group is launching a national student challenge to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo moon landing.

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.

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.

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.

April 2, 2018

Earth’s stable temperature past suggests other planets could also sustain life

image of early Earth with thermometer and pH strip overlaid

Earth has had moderate temperatures throughout its early history, and neutral seawater acidity. This means other rocky planets could likely also maintain this equilibrium and allow life to evolve.

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 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 24, 2018

A new ‘atmospheric disequilibrium’ could help detect life on other planets

illustration of telescope and planets

A University of Washington study has found a simple approach to look for life that might be more promising than just looking for oxygen.

January 3, 2018

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

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

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

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…

October 16, 2017

UW researchers mark first detection of gravitational waves from collision of two neutron stars

For the first time, scientists have detected gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars.

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 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 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 11, 2016

Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein’s prediction

For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

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

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.

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…

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