University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences


Searching the Kuiper Belt

June 10, 2016

UVA astronomer Anne Verbiscer helped find a new target in the Kuiper Belt, the icy body 2014 MU69, for the NASA New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons will pay a visit to 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.

Read the full article at UVA Today.

Posthumous Paper Resolves Century-Old Mystery of How Stars Evolve

May 19, 2016

The discovery of subgaint stars opened the field of observational stellar evolution. Alan Sandage (Carnegie Institution) teamed up with Steven Majewski (University of Virginia), and Majewski’s student, Rachael Beaton (now a postdoc at Carnegie Institution) to delve into the history of the discovery of subgiant stars. They showed that the observations of the subgiants discovered at the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1935 were remarkably accurate. Sandage was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, yet still worked feverishly on the project right until he died in 2010. Majewski and Beaton received his last handwritten comments two days later. And they doggedly continued the work in his honor.

See more at Gizmodo

First Annual Astronomy Undergraduate Research Symposium

May 9, 2016

On April 22, 2016, seven Department of Astronomy undergraduates participated in the department's first Annual Astronomy Undergraduate Research Symposium. Their names and poster titles are listed below. These students presented their research to the rest of the department in a fashion similar to larger astronomy conferences, such as an AAS meeting. From professors to fellow undergraduates, the event was very well attended and provided an excellent opportunity for the students to share and discuss their projects, while celebrating their accomplishments. We were also joined by a high school student from Central Virginia Governor's School, Ryan Henderson, whose presentation is also listed below. As part of the symposium, the most exceptional poster was awarded a prize and this year's winner is 4th-year Avery Bailey. Congratulations to Avery and the rest of the presenters!

Bridget Anderson
"An XMM-Newton X-Ray Observation of the Galaxy Cluster Abell 3653: The Origin of High Velocity BCGs"

Avery Bailey
"The Merger Dynamics of Abell 2061"

Alex Bixel
"Measuring the Dark Matter Content of Galaxies with SALT"

Shawn ‘Tom’ Booth:
"Investigating the Spatial Structure of HCN Emission in Comet C/2012 F6 (Lemmon)"

Arvind Gupta:
"Measurement of Distances to RR Lyrae Stars in the Sagittarius Dwarf Core"

Duy Nguyen
"False Positive Detection within the APOGEE Catalog of Extrasolar Companion Candidates"

Christopher Wiens
"The Importance of Compact Group Environments Over Cosmic Time"

Ryan Henderson
"Measuring the mass of the black hole in galaxy NGC 5765b using H2O maser spectra"

UVA Astronomers Find Oasis in Brown Dwarf Desert

April 21, 2016

In a new paper published last month in The Astronomical Journal, a team of astronomers led by Department of Astronomy graduate student Nicholas Troup has shown that the brown dwarf desert is not as barren as previously thought. UVA faculty members Steven Majewski, Michael Skrutskie and John Wilson in the Department of Astronomy collaborated on the findings as part of the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment, itself part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Astronomers had long expected that the universe would be teeming with brown dwarfs, and plenty have been found in isolation. Until recently, however, so few brown dwarfs have been found orbiting close to other stars that astronomers referred to the phenomenon as the “brown dwarf desert.” This created a problem for theorists, who have been scrambling to explain why astronomers have found so few. So when Sloan Digital Sky Survey astronomers started sifting through their data looking for companions to stars, they never expected such a bountiful harvest. While only 41 close-in brown dwarf companions to stars had been detected previously, in their new work Troup and the Sloan astronomers report the discovery of 112 more.

Read the full article at UVA Today

Undergraduate Student Martine Lokken Wins Minerva Award

April 18, 2016

Undergraduate Astronomy-Physics major Martine Lokken has won a Minerva Award from the University of Virginia College Council. Minerva Awards fund scholarly projects that will be conducted by College students during the summer. The award is named for the goddess Minerva, found on the University seal, who is the Roman symbol of knowledge and creativity, and it is this spirit that the Council hopes to promote with this award.

Illimitable: Pluto Up Close

March 23, 2016

UVA Today has an outstanding feature article on the New Horzions mission to Pluto featuring UVA scientists Anne Verbiscer (Astronomy) and Alan Howard (Environmental Sciences).

Read the Article at UVA Today

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt Honored as an International Rising Talent

March 18, 2016

UVa and NRAO scientist Sabrina Stierwalt will be internationally honored at the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards, held in Paris on March 24, 2016, as the North American junior representative from across all of the STEM fields. Every year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program celebrates five outstanding Laureates for their groundbreaking work, exceptional talent and deep commitment to their profession.  


Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is being recognized for the research she carried out in the Astronomy Department at the University of Virginia on galaxy evolution. She is conducting the first systematic study of gas dynamics and star formation in interacting dwarf galaxies, with the goal of better understanding how stars formed in the early universe. In its second year, the International Rising Talents program recognizes the achievements of women who are in the early stages of their scientific careers and provides a 15,000 euro grant along with mentorship support and international exposure. The International Rising Talents were chosen from among the recent winners of the For Women in Science fellowships awarded locally by L'Oreal subsidiaries worldwide, including the L'Oreal USA For Women in Science fellowship program. 


Read news release:

L'Oreal and UNESCO Recognize Two U.S.-Based Women Researchers for Scientific Achievements

Science Highlights New Horizons Results

March 17, 2016

Anne Verbiscer (Astronomy) and Alan Howard (Environmental Sciences) are co-authors on several papers in the 18 March 2016 issue of Science which highlight results from the New Horizons Pluto Flyby.  The cover image reveals detail on Pluto's surface, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft. At left is the bright, white Sputnik Planum, an informally named plain of nitrogen ice.  On the right are the dark red highlands of Krun Macula which rise 2.5 kilometers above the plains. The image was created using several exposures of New Horizons' Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with color data from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). 

Photo from NASA/Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Graduate Student Wins ARCS Scholarship

March 10, 2016

Graduate student Trey Wenger has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Metro Washington chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation, "a nationally recognized nonprofit organization started and run entirely by women who boost American leadership and aid in advancement of science and technology." Trey will use this funding to support his research on the morphological and chemical structure of the Milky Way.

Read more about ARCS here!

VICUNAS Astronomy Partnership with Chile

February 26, 2016

The Univesity of Virginia's Center for Global Inquiry has awarded a grant to support the Virginia/Chilean Universtiy Network for Astronomy, or VICUNAS. The program leverages UVA’s 20 years of collaboration in Chile with a new, state-of-the-art infrared spectrograph – called APOGEE-2 – that will soon yield an unprecedented survey of the southern half of the Milky Way. Astronomy professor Steve Majewski and senior research scientist John Wilson are working with seven Chilean universities to operate the instrument, sharing time, knowledge and expertise and exchanging students.

Read the UVA Today article

Astronomers Find Six New Millisecond Pulsars

January 26, 2016

UVA graduate student Thankful Cromartie used the Arecibo Observatory to observe unidentified gamma-ray sources in the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope source catalog and discovered six new millisecond pulsars! Five of the six pulsars are in interacting compact binaries (with periods < 8.1 hr), while the sixth is a more typical neutron star-white dwarf binary with an 83-day orbital period.

Read more on!

Green Pea Galaxy Provides Insights to Early Universe Evolution

January 13, 2016

Newly formed dwarf galaxies were likely the reason that the universe heated up about 13 billion years ago, according to new work by an international team of scientists that included University of Virginia astronomer Trinh Thuan. The finding opens an avenue for better understanding the early period of the universe’s 14 billion year history.

Read the UVA Today article

The First Global Age Map of the Milky Way Galaxy

January 8, 2016

Astronomers have measured the age of 70,000 stars across the Milky Way using the University of Virginia led APOGEE instrument and put the results into a galactic map.

Read the BBC article

Dark Skies, Bright Kids receives Packard Foundation Award

December 13, 2015

We are excited to announce that Dark Skies Bright Kids has been given a generous grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for the next three years to run week long summer astronomy programs designed at reaching more rural communities in southern Virginia. We are very grateful for their support and look forward to the opportunity to bring astronomy education and outreach to more communities across Virginia! 

This program will allow us to take full advantage of the wonderfully dark skies southern Virginia has to offer. In fact they are some of the darkest skies on the east coast! Watch this space for more updates about specific details for this summer's programs.

Seeing Stars: UVA Leads the Development of APOGEE-2

December 10, 2015

UVA astronomers are designing and building a $6 million instrument, APOGEE-2, that will allow astronomer to measure the motions and chemical compositions of hundreds of thousands of stars at distances up to 25,000 light years.

Read the full article at UVA Today

Human Computer

December 5, 2015

Wonderful UVA Virginia Magazine video and article about our friend, Caroyl Beddow Gooch, recalling her work her in the 1940s. Thanks to Molly Minturn for capturing Caroyl's delightful character in this piece.

‘Everyday Einstein’ Sabrina Stierwalt Brings Everyday Science to Everybody

December 4, 2015

Did you know that a UVA Astronomer is your Everyday Einstein? Learn more about Sabrina and her podcast in this article from UVA Today.

UVA Scientists See Pluto Up Close

November 18, 2015

Two UVA planetary scientists, Dr. Anne Verbiscer (Astronomy) and Dr. Alan Howard (Environmental Sciences), are members of the science team for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. In this UVAToday article, they discuss early results from the mission, including some of the spectacular images returned so far.

UVA Astronomers Study Huge Lava Lake on Jupiter's moon Io

November 17, 2015

UVA astronomer Michael Skrutskie and colleagues have taken advantage of a chance alignment of Jupiter's moons to study Io's Loki Patera volcano and its huge lava lake with 40 times better resolution than any past Earth-based observations.

Read more at EOS Earth and Space Science News

Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE)

June 11, 2015

The true extent of Saturn's outermost ring

June 10, 2015

Professors Anne Verbiscer and Michael Skrutskie are co-authors on the recent Nature paper announcing the discovery of the true extent of Saturn's outermost ring. Prof. Verbiscer and Prof. Skrutskie discovered this ring, the so-called Pheobe ring, in 2009 using the Spitzer Space Telescope. In the Nature article published earlier this month, they used data from the NASA Wide-field Infrared Space Explorer to find that the Pheobe ring extends out to a remarkable distance of 270 Saturn-radii from Saturn, making it the largest known planetary ring in the Solar System.

UVA Astronomers Contribute to Landmark Observations of Jupiter's Moon Io

May 29, 2015

University of Virginia astronomer Dr. Mike Skrutskie and former UVA Ph.D. student Dr. Jarron Leisenring used the Large Binocular Telescope to make landmark observations of a giant lava lake on Jupiter's moon Io. Details on the observations and what they found are in this UVAToday article.

Sandra Liss was the Departmental Award Winner in this year's Graduate Teaching Awards Competition

May 15, 2015

Graduate Student Sandra Liss was the Departmental Award Winner in this year's Graduate Teaching Awards Competition for her dedication to teaching in the Department of Astronomy. This award, from the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs, in collaboration with the University's Teaching Resource Center, recognizes the university's best graduate student teachers and carries an honorarium. 

This cosmic 'dinosaur egg' is about to hatch

May 14, 2015

Professor Kelsey Johnson's research on the ALMA detection of birthplaces of soon-to-be globular clusters was featured in a press release article in the Washington Post. Check out the article, "This cosmic 'dinosaur egg' is about to hatch" on the Washington Post website. 

Department Awards

May 8, 2015

Undergraduate Tracy Esman is the recipient of the department's Limber Award, which recognizes the most outstanding Astrophysics graduate each year in terms of research and academics. She did her thesis with Anne Verbiscer on the Martian atmosphere, and will be attending the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab for graduate school. 

Undergraduate Avery Bailey is the recipient of the department's Vyssotsky Prize, which recognizes an outstanding third year Astrophysics major. It comes with $1000 for research-related travel. Avery has been working with Craig Sarazin on analyzing XMM-Newton X-ray data on the merging cluster Abell 2061.