UW News

Department of Astronomy


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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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



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