Winter 2019 Newsletter

Salutations from the Astronomy Department!

Now that the department has recovered from “Snowmageddon 2019” we are really looking forward to spring. Spring quarter brings the opening of the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory (TJO), a fresh round of colloquium speakers, and graduation!

Spring gives our astronomers more time to observe the skies, and more opportunities to share their discoveries and knowledge with student and the public. 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 off campus events for the Mobile Planetarium. As always, we are tremendously grateful for our alumni and friends, and their help and support. With much to look forward to, we wish you all the best for the coming spring.


Astronomy Highlights: Melissa Graham

Astronomy would like to introduce Dr. Melissa Graham. Dr. Graham has been with the department for 3 years working with the LSST Data Management team as a Project Science Analyst. This quarter her work is focusing on supernova science with the Zwicky Transient Facility, preparing for the future of time-domain astronomy with the stream of millions of “astronomical event alerts” that LSST will produce, and finishing up a paper on how best to estimate distances to galaxies with future large-area multi-wavelength surveys.

An exciting accomplishment for Dr. Graham this year has been the publication of a paper in which she was the lead, titled “Delayed Circumstellar Interaction for Type Ia SN 2015cp Revealed by an HST Ultraviolet Imaging Survey”. This paper was accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. She presented this work at the American Astronomical Society meeting (AAS) here in Seattle in January, and the UW media office did a press release to coincide with her talk. You can find links to a few articles relating to Dr. Graham’s research below.

“Dr. Melissa Graham is an outstanding scientist whose work is at the forefront of research on exploding supernovae stars. She is also doing fantastic work as a member of thhe LSST team and helping us prepare for time-domain science with millions of alerts per night that LSST will soon start producing.” —Dr. Željko Ivezić

Outside of the university Dr. Graham finds time to tap dance! She is taking intermediate tap dancing classes with the All That Dance studio. She’s also taking beginner Spanish classes at Seattle City University. We are excited to see what she does next in and out of the University.

“One little dot can tell us a lot! This is our Hubble Space Telescope image of Type Ia supernova 2015cp, obtained with a near-ultraviolet filter, 686 days after the original explosion (cyan circle labeled “ultraviolet source”). That dot is light from the explosion of a white dwarf star hitting material within 0.1 light-years of the progenitor star system. The very existence of this material indicates that the exploding star had was in a binary system, and likely had either a sun-like or red giant star companion — not another white dwarf star.” —Dr. Graham

Read more about Dr. Graham’s work at UW News, Geek Wire, and DiRAC.


Kudos of the Quarter

This quarter we’d like to give kudos to Bayu Wilson. Bayu is a senior in the Astronomy department. He is currently studding the evolution of high-redshift intergalactic gas using the absorption `forests` in the spectrum of quasars with Professor Matthew McQuinn and Dr. Vid Iršič.

“In my work, I probe this gas using the quasar spectra at redshifts between 3.0 and 4.2 from the XQ-100 Legacy Survey taken with VLT/XSHOOTER. With 100 quasar spectra from this survey I make flux power spectrum measurements on the Lyman-alpha and Lyman-beta forest (Two electronic transitions of hydrogen gas). By measuring the same intergalactic gas in two different ways (Lyman-alpha & Lyman-beta), my work can improve constraints on cosmology measurements made with the Lyman-alpha forest alone. I test my analysis pipeline on synthetic data that match the quasar redshift distribution of the XQ-100 sample. I use high-resolution simulations of the intergalactic medium from the Sherwood simulation suite. The image below is a projection of gas density at z=2.8 with 40 comoving Mpc/h on each side from this simulation suite.” —Bayu Wilson

“Even though a senior undergraduate, he has successfully developed a code to measure the power spectrum of the absorption lines – a task suited more for a graduate level student: this includes understanding and coding of Fast Fourier Transforms, time evolution asymmetry, expansion of the Universe, and various systematic effects that has to take into account, or correct, using his code. Despite his own work on the project, Bayu has continuously shown interest and offering help with other areas of the project, making him invaluable to a group effort that will ultimately result in a peer-reviewed publication.” —Dr. Vid Iršič

One might wonder how Bayu has time to sleep or eat with such an extensive research and classroom load. However, Bayu has time to play soccer, dance salsa & tango, and run long-distance. This quarter he dances almost every single day! He loves to go dancing at Dance Underground in Capitol Hill and Salsa Con Todo in Fremont.
Bayu says, “Let me know if you ever want to come! It’s a bit chilly for soccer right now but next quarter I might try to form the Pulsar Kicks [an astronomy themed soccer team].” Lastly, Bayu plans to train for a marathon or half-marathon later this year. Please join us in cheering him on in and out of the department!


Graduate Research: Focus on Brett Morris

This winter we’d like to introduce you to Brett Morris. Brett Morris has dedicated much of his time to not only research, but also furthering the growth of the astronomy community in Seattle. Brett has played a major role in the Astronomy on Tap series. Astronomy on Tap is a free event that features accessible, engaging science presentations on topics ranging from planets to black holes to the beginning of the Universe. Most events have games and prizes to test and reward your new-found knowledge! Any and everyone is invited.

As for Brett’s research we only know as much about a planet as we know about its host star, which is why Brett’s dissertation work focuses on stellar magnetic activity and its effects on observations of transiting exoplanets. The first half of Brett’s graduate work focused on the starspots of a spotted star called HAT-P-11, in collaboration with Leslie Hebb, Suzanne Hawley, Jim Davenport and Eric Agol. Brett used transits of HAT-P-11’s hot-Neptune exoplanet to reveal a map of the stellar surface. The starspot map shows that spots on HAT-P-11 emerge in similar locations as sunspots on the Sun, though in far greater numbers.

“Brett is absolutely phenomenal in his research on solar and stellar magnetic activity and the effects on exoplanets!  He has 9 first author papers since Sept 2017, along with several research notes and meeting abstracts.  He has also given 6 invited talks at national and international conferences.  Brett won the inaugural Graduate Student Research Award in 2018.” —Dr. Suzanne Hawley

The second half of Brett’s dissertation has focused on the tiny star in the TRAPPIST-1 system, and whether brightness variations on the stellar surface influence measurements of the radii of its exoplanets. Brett found evidence for bright regions on the stellar surface which may affect future optical observations of the seven Earth-sized planets. In collaboration with Eric Agol and other members of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, Brett is preparing for James Webb Space Telescope observations of these tantelizing small worlds, which may allow us to constrain their atmospheric compositions and bulk densities.

“Brett discovered a novel form of stellar variability in the small, cool star, Trappist-1, which is famed for hosting a seven transiting planet system, which Brett has helped to characterize.  Beyond his own research achievements, he serves the astronomical community by providing Python code packages for others to use, such as astroplan.” —Dr. Eric Agol

When Brett is not working on astrophysics, he devotes time to astrobiology by collaborating with Jody Deming and Max Showalter in the Oceanography Department. Brett is developing an open source software package for digital holographic microscopy, which might enable us to answer the question: “is microbial motility an unambiguous biosignature?” The team is working on a microscope called SHAMU — the Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultra-resolution — and accompanying software which can be sent to Europa or Enceladus to search for swimming microbes in an effort to search for extant life. As Brett gets ready to graduate with his PhD we are excited to see where his research takes him.

The League of Astronomers Club

The League of Astronomers (LoA) had a huge presence at the January American Astronomical Society meeting! Several of our members attended, presented, and volunteered at the meeting. We brought our mobile planetarium to showcase some of our outreach efforts to the wider astronomical community, and the LoA even had a poster presented by the lovely Adriana Gomez-Buckley!

We also held a lunar eclipse viewing party in Red Square on January 20th. Many people attended, and were able to get a great view of the eclipse above Suzzallo Library.

Have no fear! The Mobile Planetarium Committee is here

The League of Astronomers has formed the Mobile Planetarium Committee (MoPlaC)! We created MoPlaC to do more impactful outreach with the mobile planetarium. Last quarter we crafted a mission statement: “The mission of the University of Washington Mobile Planetarium Committee (UW MoPlaC) is to increase diversity in the field of astronomy beginning with the next generation of astronomers (K-12 students). Specifically, we will give engaging mobile planetarium presentations to middle school students from underrepresented communities in the Seattle area to inspire students to consider a future in astronomy.”

In order to achieve our mission, we have been working with a group called STUDIO from the College of Education. In partnership with STUDIO, we are crafting a 6-week curriculum that is culturally responsive and engaging. In the spring, we plan to apply this curriculum to an already existing mentorship program at a middle school in West Seattle.

If you are interested in getting involved email You may also come to our weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 4:30pm in the PAB B360.

Upcoming Events

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory opens in the spring! Open house events take place on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, and consist of a 30-minute talk given by members of the UW astronomy community followed by hands-on activities and viewings of the dome telescope (courtesy of the Seattle Astronomical Society). The first open house is on April 2nd, and early reservations are open. Email to secure a spot!

Dancing with the Stars will return this spring! Last year the LoA hosted a ball featuring music from Night Lunch, free planetarium shows, and other activities. It was a blast, so we decided to make it a yearly event. The second annual Dancing with the Stars event will tentatively take place on May 3rd; stay tuned! Check in on our Facebook page closer to the date!

The LoA itself holds general meetings every Wednesday at 4:30pm PAB B360 (AKA the Astrolab), and our Tea Time Colloquia with Astronomy’s weekly speaker are Thursdays at 1:30pm also in PAB B360.

The remaining speakers for winter quarter colloquium are:

February 28th– Liang Dai from the Institute for Advanced Study Princeton, NJ.

March 7th– Dr. Jessica Werk from the University of Washington

March 14th– Dr. Kelle Cruz from Hunter College, New York, NY.

Colloquia are at 4:00PM in PAA A102, with refreshments at 3:45PM. We hope you join us in the fun!”

A list of all quarterly colloquium speakers can be found under the News & Events page on the Astronomy website.