Prof. Vikki Meadows Featured in The Atlantic

When Victoria Meadows needs to ponder life on distant planets, she surrounds herself with earthly vegetation.

“Being in nature kind of drops you into a different state of thinking,” said Meadows, who heads NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and has been awarded the 2018 Drake Award for her contributions to the search for extraterrestrial life.

Read the full article in The Atlantic.

DiRAC Open House and Research Highlights

We would like to thank all of you who attended the lecture by Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter to celebrate the opening of our DiRAC Institute.

It was a wonderful and inspiring evening that demonstrated how our understanding of the universe might change as a result of the data from a new generation of telescopes and satellites that will come on line over the next few years. We were very happy that you could join us and share this excitement and hope that, over the coming months, you will follow the work and discoveries that will come from the DiRAC Institute.

If you would like to hear about some of the research going on at DiRAC Institute you can watch our team describe some of their research highlights below or check the news on our site. We would also welcome your support of the students and researchers at the DiRAC Institute.

DiRAC Institute Introduction from Nikolina Horvat on Vimeo.

Spring 2018 Newsletter

Letter from the Chair

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Seattle, where it seems that Spring may finally have decided to arrive. As we emerge from beneath our waterproof layers, those of us at UW Astronomy have much to celebrate.  Not only are we finally getting some much-needed vitamin D during the day, but at night we can enjoy the start of the new observing season at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Our wonderful team of undergraduate presenters, trained and shepherded by Prof. Ana Larson, help staff open houses on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of the spring and summer months, along with partners from the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Spring also finds us celebrating many notable achievements by our faculty. Prof. Jessica Werk (featured in our last newsletter) was awarded a Sloan Foundation Fellowship for early career faculty.  She joins Prof. Emily Levesque and Prof. Matt McQuinn in this honor, making it the third straight year that one of our assistant professors has won this prestigious award! Among the senior faculty, Prof. Andy Connolly was appointed to the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars, I was awarded the Beatrice Tinsley Prize of the American Astronomical Society, and Prof. Victoria Meadows was just announced as the winner of the Drake Award from the SETI Institute for her work in astrobiology. It is a true pleasure to see our faculty being recognized for their scientific contributions, much of which came in partnership with UW students.

Within the department, we are gearing up to celebrate and honor our students.  For many years we have been fortunate to offer the Baer prizes for undergraduate excellence in research and in service, funded by a generous gift to the department.  This year, we are starting similar awards for graduate students, funded by the new Hodge and Wallerstein funds that so many of you contributed to over the past 2 years. As always, we are tremendously grateful for our alumni and friends, and their help in supporting our students!

With much to celebrate, and even more to look forward to, I wish you all the best for the coming summer.



Julianne Dalcanton
Professor and Chair
Astronomy Department
University of Washington

Astronomy Highlights

We would like to introduce you to Professor Mario Juric. Professor Juric has been a part of the Astronomy Department since 2014. He recently became a proud father of his now 3-month old daughter, Mila. Professor Juric has managed to be a devoted father, and dedicated member of the department. He is currently one of the hosts for Astronomy Colloquium, and he’s teaching Astronomy 497 this quarter.

This quarter his research has been focused on the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) science. ZTF began operations in late March and is producing hundreds of thousands of new time-variable object measurements every night. These measurements are flowing into UW as an “alert stream” and they’re setting up the software to capture, store, and analyze it. Having all the data in a local database here at UW will let them do early time-series science with ZTF, as well as some research in data management techniques. Professor Juric states that, “Right now I’m especially looking forward to applying this data set to learn more about asteroids and comets in the Solar System, but I’m always on the lookout for unexpected discoveries that arise with large and novel datasets such as this one. I’m very excited finding better ways to discover asteroids.”

Joachim Moeyens, a graduate student in his group, has been working on this problem. He has recently shown a proof-of-concept implementation of a novel algorithm that can discover asteroids with only a few observations spread across a few weeks (present techniques all require at least two observations each night). If they can show this technique is computationally feasible, and can handle various corner cases, it would increase how much the sky a large survey (such as LSST) could cover in a night by as much as a factor of two! The ZTF group is definitely a group to keep an eye on.

Simulated trajectories of asteroids to be linked with the novel multi-night linking technique.

Kudos of the Quarter

This quarter we are honored to give kudos to Locke Patton. Locke will be heading to Harvard Center for Astrophysics this fall, under a Pierce Fellowship. He has been studying supernova remnant environments with Professor Emily Levesque. They have been building metallicity, extinction, and star formation maps of supernovae-rich galaxies like the Fireworks Galaxy. In January he presented this research at the American Astronomical Society Winter Meeting under an AAS Travel grant in Washington DC. He is also in the process of publishing a paper for these results.

“As part of a future transientZoo public outreach project with Prof. Levesque, I have been sonifying supernovae light curves. Eventually, public volunteers will classify supernovae by listening to the dying wails of massive stars.”

It has been a great pleasure to see one of our students become a mentor, a leader, and an overall light in our department.  Locke has participated in many of our outreach programs including: Astronomy on Tap, giving public talks at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, participating in the League of Astronomers as a Science Officer, and volunteering for our Planetarium shows. He has also won two Mary Gates Research Scholarships, and a BAER prize.

Locke grew up on a dairy farm and nature preserve in Portland. He loves to get lost in old bookstores, and get involved in public outreach. Locke is even an undergraduate representative for the department and the UW graduation video. We are happy to share in his achievements, and we look forward to seeing what he will accomplish in the future.

“Locke always has a lot of energy and excitement for the research he does. By bringing that same energy and excitement to the table when we’re discussing projects he doesn’t work on in our group meetings, he’s incredibly supportive of the other research going on within the department. It’s been an absolute delight and pleasure to be in the massive star group with him and I can’t wait to see what he works on in graduate school.” – Dr. Jamie Lomax

Graduate Research: Focus on Andrew Lincowski

This quarter we’d like to share research conducted by Andrew Lincowski. Andrew’s research focuses on predicting observational discriminants of alien atmospheres that may exist on terrestrial-sized planets in and around the habitable zones of M dwarf stars, which may be observed in the near future by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). To model the observational discriminants, Andrew continues development of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory’s new 1D line-by-line, multi-stream, multi-scattering radiative-convective climate model coupled to a photochemical-kinetics model. He uses this model to generate self-consistent temperature structures and mixing ratio profiles, which are used to simulate high-resolution spectra. These spectra can be used as inputs for instrument and noise models to assess the required capabilities and observing modes for future telescopes to discriminate between the modeled planetary states. A primary focus of this work is the recently discovered seven-planet TRAPPIST-1 system, which is already scheduled to be observed by JWST.

Andrew has had a highly successful year of scientific productivity, and team and community support.  After winning a fiercely competitive NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, giving a talk at an international meeting on exoplanet habitability, and passing his research Qual last Autumn,  Andrew has gone on to submit the first first-author paper of his degree on modeling the environments and spectra of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanetary system. Andrew also supervises pre-MAP students, and helps undergraduate students with their scientific research. Outside of being a large contributor to the VPL team here at UW, Andrew finds time for running, hiking, and restoring his 1968 Ford Mustang. This makes us a little envious of him. We are excited to see where his research and Ford Mustang will take him.

“Andrew also broadened the impact of his expertise to the exoplanet and astrobiology communities at large, by supporting the writing of community white papers submitted to the National Academies Committees on Exoplanets and Astrobiology.  Andrew’s newly-developed planetary climate model enables simulation of a range of terrestrial planet environments and their spectra, and his research informs observing proposals for NASA’s JWST and the development of future large-aperture direct-imaging telescopes.” – Dr. Victoria Meadows

Upcoming Events

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is Open

The League of Astronomers has been involved with the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, the second-oldest building on campus, since the club was founded. The League participates by engaging the public through giving talks, science demos, and answering any and all questions about the universe we live in. This year, long-time director of the observatory, Dr. Ana Larson, is unfortunately retiring. However, the club is working hard to fill her role and keep TJO the fantastic place it has always been. We’re working hard to create new and interesting activities for the public to keep them engaged and interested in science and astronomy.

The TJO hosts Evening Public Talks every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month from April to September. Find out more about the observatory and its events.

League of Astronomer members volunteering at the opening night of TJO 2018.

May 15 – 9:00 pm: Tom Hemphill, “Life in the Solar System Beyond Earth: Past? Present? Future?”
 Tom is majoring in astronomy and physics. The UW Astronomy Department is a leader in a relatively new field called astrobiology. Tom’s talk will introduce us to part of what an astrobiologist is interest in: The possibility of microbial life in  the solar system. Where would we look for the best possibilities of finding it? How will we look? What planets or moons have evidence for favorable conditions for microbial life? Towards the very end of the evening, we might get a look at Jupiter’s moon, Europa, a prime candidate for harboring microbial life.

May 15 – 9:30 pm: Sam Reissmann, “The Lives and Deaths of Stars.”
 Sam is majoring in aeronautics and astronautics; fortunately, one of our introductory astronomy courses got him interested in stars. Sam plans on covering the life cycles of both low-mass and high-mass stars, starting with star forming regions and the beginning of fusion. He will explain the process of fusion and how a star’s initial mass relates to how much “fuel” it has and how long it will live.  Stars like our Sun will expel the outer parts of their atmospheres as they die.  However, high-mass stars fuse more massive elements that results in spectacular deaths.

June 6 – 9:00 pm: TBA Jupiter makes its Appearance in the Night Sky.

June 20 – 9:00 pm: TBA The Moon and Jupiter are Visible in the Southern Sky.

Viewing Mars Summer 2018

On July 31, 2018 Mars will be a mere 35.8 million miles from Earth. When the Earth moves between Mars and the sun, Mars will outshine Jupiter by 1.8 times. Because of this Mars will appear very bright. This will be the closest Mars has come to Earth since 2003 when the red planet was only 34.6 million miles away. Something interesting to note is that radio signals will take only about 3 minutes to reach Mars. Mars will not be this close to Earth again until 2035. Don’t forget to grab your telescope and head outdoors.

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

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.