UW Undergraduate Tyler Valentine Named Goldwater Scholar

Three University of Washington undergraduates are among 211 students nationwide named as 2018 Goldwater Scholars. The Barry Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to students who have outstanding potential and plan to pursue research careers in mathematics, natural sciences or engineering. Tyler Valentine, who is from Washington, is majoring in Astronomy, Earth and space sciences. He plans to pursue a doctorate in space science and engineering focused on using the resources of near-Earth space.

Read the full story at UW News.

Graduate Student Kathryn Neugent Discovers Rare Runaway Star

UW graduate student Kathryn Neugent is lead author on a new paper describing the discovery of a yellow supergiant star in the Small Magellanic Cloud that is moving at a whopping 300,000 miles an hour. From the Lowell Observatory press release:

The runaway star (designated J01020100-7122208) is located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a close neighbor of the Milky Way Galaxy, and is believed to have once been a member of a binary star system. When the companion star exploded as a supernova, the tremendous release of energy flung J01020100-7122208 into space at its high speed. The star is the first runaway yellow supergiant star ever discovered, and only the second evolved runaway star to be found in another galaxy.

Read the full story at Newsweek or UW News.

Prof. Andy Connolly Appointed to JHU Society of Scholars

UW Astronomy Professor Andy Connolly has been appointed to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars. The Society of Scholars, established in 1967, inducts former postdoctoral fellows, postdoctoral degree recipients, house staff, and junior or visiting faculty who have gained marked distinction in their respective fields.

Professor Connolly leads the development of simulations for the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and is the creator of Google Sky.

Prof. Jessica Werk Awarded Sloan Fellowship

Five faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, including Jessica Werk, assistant professor of astronomy.

Werk is a kind of galaxy historian, studying matter on atomic scales to help understand how galaxies — and the universe as a whole — evolve. By aiming giant telescopes at the night’s sky, she uses spectrographs to study atoms billions of light years away. Werk looks at the distinction between subatomic particles that exist both outside and inside galaxies. The outcome, she hopes, will help elucidate a better understanding of our own cosmic origins.

“When I look at the sky I see lots of different atomic transitions that I’m trying to piece together into a coherent picture,” said Werk.

Read the full article at UW News.

Winter 2018 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

With the launch of this newsletter, we are hoping to welcome you as an on-going member of the UW Astronomy community. Since becoming Chair in Fall of 2016, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the importance of community to our department’s mission.  At the same time that we are exploring the vast, nearly empty reaches of space, our ability to connect with each other as scientists and educators is essential to creating knowledge and sharing it with the world.  Every time I see researchers discussing the latest results in the new space for our new Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology (DIRAC) center, or groups of undergrads collaborating in our recently remodeled Undergraduate Research Commons, or grad students hosting “Astronomy on Tap” events in local breweries, I see how it is the connections between us that often drive discovery.

The spirit of shared community at UW Astronomy — backed by a commitment to research excellence and strong support from our donors — is one of our Department’s most important draws. Currently, our graduate admissions committee is hard at work winnowing through over 350 applications for one of roughly 5 slots in next year’s entering class. Our program for undergraduates is steadily growing as well, with over 70 students currently declared as majors, both in our regular and our new “Astronomical Data Science” tracks. We also have been hosting a steady stream of exciting visitors, who are eager to exchange ideas about everything from asteroids to dark matter.

As we head into spring we hope that you will take part in one of our many department events such as: Open house Wednesday nights at the Jacobsen Observatory, First Friday’s at the Planetarium, and spring colloquium. If you are one of our wonderful alumni or another astronomy aficionado, we would love to hear from you or see you at one of our department events.


Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

Astronomy Highlights

Jessica Werk has been an Assistant Professor in our department since 2016. She has been working on how galaxies acquire, eject, and recycle their gas, processes that make up the so-called “cosmic baryon cycle”. She has two large observational programs tuned to these problems. One, which she is working on with grad student Hannah Bish, is an observational survey with the goal of directly tracing the gas distribution and kinematics within the inner 15 kpc of the Milky Way disk.

The other is a huge extragalactic Cirgumgalactic Medium (CGM)-focused survey, called CGM2, that combines galaxy and quasar data from the Hubble Space Telescope, Keck Telescopes, Gemini Telescopes, and the Large Binocular Telescopes. Graduate student Matt Wilde has recently joined this project. To help interpret these observations, she and UW grad student Nicole Sanchez are working to directly compare their results with cosmological, hydrodynamical simulations that resolve baryonic structure on the same scales as the observational surveys.

A diagram of different components of the circumgalactic medium that Professor Werk studies

In addition to her research Professor Werk is building a “SQuAD”; that is, a group of “Student Quasar Absorption Diagnosticians.” Her amazing group of undergraduates is working on a critical aspect of her CGM2 survey. They are heroically identifying every absorption feature in nearly 100 quasar spectra taken with the Hubble Space Telescope Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. That amounts to tens of thousands of absorption lines, ranging from neutral Hydrogen to highly ionized metal species like OVI, NeVIII, and MgX! Together, they will build the largest database of absorption line identifications to-date, which will be used by scientists all over the world to answer questions about the cosmic baryon cycle.

Outside of the university Professor Werk recently was a co-pilot on a float plane to British Columbia! She participated in a colloquium tour through British Columbia and Victoria. “I jockeyed for the co-pilot seat on a tip from Professor Julianne Dalcanton, and had the best flight experience of my entire life (and I am a weirdo in that I actually like to fly!). As a result of the experience, I briefly contemplated trying to get my pilot’s license, but then realized that would be too time-consuming and expensive and would detract from the time I have to spend with my galaxies.” Whether Professor Werk’s feet are on the ground or in the sky we are very excited about her research and the places it will take the department.

Kudos of the Quarter

Nicholas Saunders is a senior graduating this June with a BS in Astronomy and Physics and a BA in Comparative Literature. Nick is a well-respected leader amongst our students and serves as one of our undergraduate representatives to the faculty board. He also conducts research on the detection of extrasolar planets with Research Associate Rodrigo Luger and Professor Rory Barnes. He recently presented his research at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, DC.
Despite having a full schedule he still makes time to participate and lead outreach activities for the department. He is an officer in the University’s League of Astronomers club, and he helps organize and present at the monthly public planetarium shows. Both of these activities help the department reach diverse groups of students, alumni, and the general public. Outside of the department Nick likes to hike, camp, and play the guitar and violin.

“I read lots of books whenever I can spare the time. It’s remained an important passion of mine despite committing to such a heavy STEM degree – my love of books and movies is why I’m also getting the comparative lit BA.”

We are tremendously pleased to share Nick’s accomplishments with everyone. Nick is one of the many scholars in our department that help push the boundaries of exploration and knowledge.

Graduate Research: Focus on Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein

Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein is a 3rd year graduate student studying massive stars with Professor Emily Levesque. In particular, he is interested in utilizing cutting-edge stellar evolution models and simple observational tests to determine the importance of binarity in the evolution of massive stars. Professor Levesque says, “ Last quarter Trevor published his first first-author paper on the serendipitous discovery of a low-luminosity AGN behind M31 that is a very strong candidate for hosting the first confirmed binary supermassive black hole system. The paper received some great press coverage, and he wrote a guest blog about the discovery that was posted on the Chandra X-ray Observatory website.”

Trevor recently presented this work at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Washington, DC. Trevor has been doing all of this while also kicking off some preparatory work on his thesis research (studying the effects of binary and rotation on massive star populations), helping to organize Astronomy on Tap, and playing his first concert as the drummer in the band Night Lunch (along with fellow Astronomy department graduates Spencer Wallace, Brett Morris, and Nicole Sanchez). When he’s not researching science and being in an awesome band he likes to bake cookies, and bake more cookies.

Upcoming Events

Public viewing of Mars through telescopes at “Star Party” at UW campus on 9-3-03

Here are few events that we hope you will be able to participate in.

April 21st is International Astronomy Day! This event was started in 1973 by Doug Berger, the president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California. He created this day so that all people could observe the skies. Astronomy Day occurs around the first quarter moon. This is one of the best times to view the Moon.

“The terminator can also be defined as that variable line between the illuminated portion and the part of the Moon in shadow. Along with the fact that a half Moon offers more viewing comfort to the eye as opposed to a full Moon, using a telescope with just small optical power (magnifications of 20 to 40x), or even with good binoculars, we can then see a wealth of detail on its surface.  Around those times when the Moon is half-lit or gibbous phase, those features lying close to the terminator stand out in sharp, clear relief.” Rao, J. (2006). The Best Time for Moon Viewing.

In honor of International Astronomy Day the department will be hosting planetarium shows on Friday April 20th. Please go to the Facebook University of Washington Planetarium page for availability. A link for tickets will be posted on April 8th. Seating is limited.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower will occur April 16th to April 25th, and will peak on April 22nd . The best times to view the shooting stars are after nightfall and before dawn. On average the Lyrid shower produces 15 to 20 meteors per hour, but can sometimes produce large bursts. Luckily, the light from the moon should not greatly affect the shower because of its quarter moon phase.

The League of Astronomers Club

The League of Astronomers is a club at the University of Washington which seeks to expose as many people as possible to the joy of astronomy. With spring quarter fast approaching, and the weather clearing up significantly, there will be many more opportunities to get involved with the LoA and the astronomy department. Here are a few opportunities in which the LoA is involved:

Mobile Planetarium

This quarter and next quarter, we will be taking our favorite inflatable dome out to several schools around the Seattle area. The mobile planetarium is an excellent opportunity to introduce yourself to presenting topics in astronomy, as most shows are 10 minutes long and are given to a wide variety of audiences. If you’re interested in attending a show you may contact uw.mobile.planetarium@gmail.com.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

This Spring, the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory will reopen for public observing nights once again! At observing nights, student volunteers assist in setting up telescopes, conduct solar system tours, and answer astronomy questions. Interested students also have the opportunity to present at the observatory through the Astronomy 270 public outreach class.

That’s all from the League of Astronomers! Join them for more volunteering opportunities and astronomy-related fun! Our meetings are currently on Wednesdays at 4:30pm in the AstroLab in the Physics/Astronomy Building room B360.

Prof. Julianne Dalcanton Awarded Beatrice Tinsley Prize

The American Astronomical Society has awarded UW Astronomy Professor and Department Chair Julianne Dalcanton the 2018 Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize.

The AAS describes the prize as recognizing “contributions that are of an exceptionally creative or innovative character and that have played a seminal role in furthering our understanding of the universe.” Dr. Dalcanton was awarded the prize for her work on large surveys of low-surface-brightness galaxies and her use of the Hubble Space Telescope to create legacy datasets of resolved stellar populations in nearby galaxies.

UW Astronomers Observe Interstellar Asteroid

Concept art of 1I/’Oumuamua. Credit: M. Kornmesser/ESO

On October 25, 2017, the first discovery of an interstellar object (ISO), 1I/’Oumuamua, was announced to the world after it was detected by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Maui, Hawaii. Initially, the object was thought to be a comet from the far reaches of the solar system in a region known as the Oort Cloud, where objects have extreme orbits that take them careening through the inner solar system at speeds exceeding 60 km/s, too high to be bound to our solar system. Additional obs

ervations also showed that it was not cometary, but instead appeared more like an asteroid.

Soon after the Minor Planet Center’s official announcement of 1I, a group of astronomers at the University of Washington — Bryce Bolin (also at B612 Asteroid Institute), Lynne Jones, Daniela Huppenkothen, Joachim Moeyens, Mario Jurić, Željko Ivezić and Andrew Connolly — teamed up with researchers Hal Weaver and Carey Lisse at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Yan Fernandez from the University of Central Florida, and rapidly obtained observations at the Apache Point 3.5 m telescope in Sunspot, New Mexico.

Sequence of APO observations of 1I/’Oumuamua (click through for animated gif)

The team observed 1I in the New Mexico desert skies, imaging it in three different color filters and obtaining measurements covering a 4-hour lightcurve. The photometric data revealed that 1I had a likely rotation period of ~8.1 hours and an unusually high aspect ratio ~6:1. This aspect ratio revealed that the object is shaped like a fingerling potato. In addition, photometric color measurements implied that 1I has surface similar to primitive C and D type asteroids from the asteroid Main Belt and Jupiter Trojan swarms. These results are in agreement with several independent studies of 1I by groups at the University of Hawaii, University of California, Los Angeles and Queen’s University Belfast. The UW results have been accepted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters (Bolin et al., “APO Time Resolved Color Photometry of Highly-Elongated Interstellar Object 1I/’Oumuamua”), with a preprint available on the arXiv.

A full description of the work by UW astronomers is available on the Dirac website.

DIRAC-B612 ADAM HackDays

Participants in the B612 ADAM HackDay
Participants in the B612 ADAM HackDay

UW Astronomy’s DIRAC Institute hosted the first ADAM HackDays (October 4-5, 2017). ADAM (Asteroid Decision and Analysis Machine) is a project led by B612’s Asteroid Institute, aiming to better understand threats and opportunities coming from asteroids in the Solar System. ADAM will be a cloud-based system for large-scale precise integration and analysis of trajectories of asteroids, especially those that are potentially hazardous to Earth. The HackDays brought together DIRAC researchers, Asteroid Institute Fellows, and community supporters for a first ADAM team meeting and two days of hacking on ADAM code.

Faculty Spotlight: Sarah Tuttle

Sarah Tuttle recently joined the UW Astronomy Department as an Assistant Professor, and is head of UW’s new Space & Ground Instrumentation Laboratory. In her own words:

Professor Sarah Tuttle“I am primarily an instrumental astrophysicist working on novel hardware approaches, and build spectrographs to study the physical processes of galaxies. I’m interested in isolating processes in galaxies that regulate star formation, especially in trying to detect emission and infall from the inter- and circumgalactic medium. I’m leading a new spectrograph project for Apache Point Observatory to update our spectrographic capabilities. I’ve built instruments for ground based telescopes as well as for balloon-borne telescopes. I’m also deeply invested in understanding how societal systemic biases (like racism and sexism) distort our scientific work, and am working to address those biases in hiring and beyond.”

Q & A

What got you into astronomy?

I really love to look up. I like figuring out how things work. Knowing more about how our universe fits together only makes me more passionate about the work that I do.

What do you find most challenging and rewarding about being an astronomer?

My job is different every single day. I remember being younger and having a job that was somewhat repetitive, and swearing that when I “grew up” I’d do something that wasn’t repetitive at all. It may be a case of “Be careful what you wish for.” I love the mix of activities – from being in the lab, or at the telescope, to teaching and giving public outreach lectures, to sitting down working through the literature, and working with students as they discover the joys (and occasional pains) of research.

What is your favourite aspect about Seattle?

It is a close tie between Mount Rainier looming on the horizon, and the Space Needle. The Space Needle just resonates for me, both on the aesthetic front, and on the awesome engineering front. I hear they used to have an annual pass, which I’m sad no longer exists. If it did, I’d probably go hang out on the observation deck and work while the world drifted by.