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.

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.

Giant black hole pair photobombs Andromeda Galaxy

Chandra X-ray Observatory data for J0045+41 (inset, blue region) in the context of optical images of Andromeda from the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA/CXC/University of Washington/ESA)

It seems like even black holes can’t resist the temptation to insert themselves unannounced into photographs. 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.

As they report in a paper published online Nov. 20 in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers from the University of Washington made this discovery using X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and optical data from two ground-based telescopes, Gemini-North in Hawaii and the Palomar Transient Factory in California.

Read the full story at UW News, and a post by Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein on the Chandra blog.

Zwicky Transient Facility Sees First Light

ZTF first light image
The first image produced by the Zwicky Transient Facility, of the Orion Nebula.

On Nov. 14, scientists with the California Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and eight additional partner institutions, announced that the Zwicky Transient Facility, the latest sensitive tool for astrophysical observations in the Northern Hemisphere, has seen “first light” and took its first detailed image of the night sky.

When fully operational in 2018, the ZTF will scan almost the entire northern sky every night. Based at the Palomar Observatory in southern California and operated by Caltech, the ZTF’s goal is to use these nightly images to identify “transient” objects that vary between observations — identifying events ranging from supernovae millions of light years away to near-Earth asteroids.

Read the full article at UW News.


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.

By teaching computers to track asteroids, UW scientists may save the Earth

Andrew Connolly, left, director of DIRAC, a new institute for intensive survey astrophysics at the University of Washington, and Zeljko Ivezic, a professor of astronomy and a key player in the development of software for the LSST telescope in Chile, stand in the planetarium at the UW. They’re involved in a major project to create a map of all the asteroids in our solar system, and to figure out which ones might pose a danger to Earth. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Andrew Connolly and Zeljko Ivezic, two UW Astronomy professors, were recently featured in a Seattle Times article. See excerpt below, and read more here at the Seattle Times article by Katherine Long.

Scientists at the University of Washington are writing computer algorithms that could one day save the world — and that’s no exaggeration.

Working away in the university’s quiet Physics/Astronomy building, these scientists are teaching computers how to sift through massive amounts of data to identify asteroids on a collision course with Earth.

Together with 60 colleagues at six other universities, the 20 UW scientists are part of a massive new data project to catalog space itself, using the largest digital camera ever made.


Reaching for the Stars — and Exoplanets

Lupita Tovar will join the UW Astronomy graduate program in the fall.

The College of Arts and Sciences recently featured Lupita Tovar, a UW undergraduate, Pre-MAP alum, and incoming Astronomy & Astrobiology graduate student. See an excerpt of the Perspectives Newsletter below, and read the full article here.

Lupita Tovar’s life hasn’t gone as planned.

The first in her extended family to finish high school, Tovar never expected to go on to a four-year college. She never imagined majoring in astronomy and physics, participating in research, presenting at conferences, or being published in academic journals. She assumed study abroad was for other students. Being honored as one of the Husky 100 and accepted to PhD programs? Unthinkable.

Yet as a UW undergraduate, Tovar has done all those things and more. After graduation, she will continue at the UW as a PhD student in astronomy and astrobiology.


UW postdoctoral researcher Jamie Lomax studies stars, using polarimetry and coronagraphy to find stellar companions, to identify planet-forming disks, and to understand mass loss from stellar winds.

On an ordinary day, UW postdoctoral researcher Jamie Lomax studies stars, using polarimetry and coronagraphy to find stellar companions, to identify planet-forming disks, and to understand mass loss from stellar winds.

She also recently created the cutting-edge field of arachnoastronomy with the help of Twitter.

A few tweets about a spider problem in her office and some resulting experiments with getting them to follow laser pointers led to a unique science exchange on social media. Astronomers and spider researchers enthusiastically converged and ultimately determined that some species of spider are capable of their own brand of star-gazing, able to see the moon, the Magellanic Clouds, and even the Andromeda Galaxy.

Read the full story “Jumping Spiders Can See the Moon” via The Atlantic.

UW Astronomy featured in Wired Magazine article about Coding in Astronomy

From “For Modern Astronomers, It’s Learn to Code or Get Left Behind.” [Image credit Getty Images.]
Past and current members of the UW Astronomy Department were recently featured in a Wired Magazine article about Coding in Astronomy:

“Back when telescopes produced less data, astronomers could get by on teaching themselves. “The old model was you go to your telescope—or you log in remotely because you’re fancy—you get your data, you download it on your computer, you make a plot, you write a paper, and you’re a scientist,” says Rawls, who is now a postdoc at the University of Washington. “Now, it’s not practical to download all the data.” And “a plot” is laughable. You just try using graph paper to nail down the correlation function that shows the distribution of millions of galaxies (go ahead; I’ll wait).”

Read the full text on “For Modern Astronomers, it’s Learn to Code or Get Left Behind” via Wired. The article features UW astro alum Walkowicz, current members Rawls & Moeyens, LSST, and E-Science.