UW News

astronomy & astrophysics

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…

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

November 6, 2013

A shot in the dark: Detector at UW on the hunt for dark matter

Physicists examine components of the axion detector at the University of Washington.

Physicists are using a detector at the UW to search for a particle called an axion, which would be the first physical evidence of the universe’s dark matter.

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.

August 29, 2012

From UW to Mars, sundial has an important role

With the recent landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, for the third time a timepiece assembled at the University of Washington has found a home on the Red Planet.

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