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


Ilse Cleeves Awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering

October 15, 2019

Astronomy Professor Ilse Cleeves was awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering to support her research on astrochemistry and the formation of planets.  The award was announced by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation on Tuesday, October 15.  These Fellowships are among the most prestigious and selective in American science.  Previous Fellows include scientists who went on to be awarded Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics, the Fields Medal in Mathematics, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships, and election to the National Academies.  The Fellowship provides $875,000 of support over five years. 

You can learn more about Professor Cleeves' research in this UVA Today article.

Follow this link for more information about the 2019 Packard Fellows

Graduate Student Thankful Cromartie Leads a Nature Astronomy Paper

September 23, 2019

UVa Astronomy graduate student Thankful Cromartie led a paper published in Nature Astronomy detailing the discovery of the most massive neutron star ever observed. This work was conducted along with her advisor Scott Ransom (of UVa and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory) and the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) collaboration. The team used pulsar timing — accounting for every rotation of dense, rapidly rotating stellar remnants — to measure the mass of J0740+6620, a 2.89-ms pulsar with a binary white dwarf companion. This work is significant because the way matter behaves (the "equation of state") deep inside the supranuclear-density interiors of neutron stars is very poorly understood. Each formulation of the equation of state dictates the mass at which the star should collapse; therefore, finding more and more massive neutron stars helps put constraints on the equation of state and improves our understanding of nuclear physics and stellar evolution. The work was covered by CNN, ABC News, USA Today, Gizmodo, Forbes, and other news sources. A summary she wrote of the paper (with a link to the original) can be found here: The NRAO press release can be found here:

A New View of the Moon

September 10, 2019

A group of astronomers, including Craig Sarazin from U.Va., have made the first high-resolution, high-frequency radio map of the Moon.  The image, at a radio frequency of 90 GHz, was made with the MUSTANG2 camera on the Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest steerable telescope.  At this radio frequency, the image shows heat radiation form the lunar surface, and brighter regions are hotter.   The image shows many of the same features as seen in more familiar optical images.  However, because temperature variations across the lunar surface are smaller than the variations in the amount of reflected sunlight, the image has less contrast than an optical image.  Also, the optically dark portion of the Moon in optical light is still visible in the radio, as the surface is still warm.


For more images and information, see the press release by the Green Bank Observatory at



Below: Radio image of the Moon at 90m GHz made with the MUSTANG2 camera on the Green Bank Telescope.  Above: Optical image at the same phase.

Volcanically active exo-moons

September 3, 2019

While our solar system contains dozens of moons orbiting the planets, there is as yet no clear detection of a moon orbiting an extrasolar planet. A group of astronomers and planetary scientists, led by former UVa graduate student Apurva Oza, have a new paper accepted to the Astrophysical Journal ( which shows that these exo-moons may have been hiding in plain sight. Absorption of starlight as it passes by the planet has often been assumed to be due to atoms in the planet’s atmosphere. Oza et al.’s idea is that there may be a volcanic “exo-Io” orbiting the exo-planet which is venting atoms to space which then absorb the starlight. This problem is how these moons may survive the harsh environment near the star. Their calculations find that a handful of known exo-planet systems may be explained by volcanic exo-Io’s. This collaboration was begun in Charlottesville and included a number of current and former UVa/richNRAO people: Oza, Bob Johnson, Carl Schmidt, Chenliang Huang and Arielle Moullet. The paper has recently been discussed in the press at

Nitya Kallivayalil Wins PECASE Award

July 8, 2019

Nitya Kallivayalil, an associate professor in Astronomy, has been award a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.  Nitya was nominated by the National Science Foundation.  The award was announced in a press release from the White House. The press release can be found here:

Photo: Nitya Kallivayalil and Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.


"Chasing the Moon" Screening & Panel Discussion

July 2, 2019

Friday | July 12 | 6:30 - 9:30 p.m. | FREE
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing at Light House Studio/Vinegar Hill Theatre. Enjoy a special screening from the new PBS American Experience series,Chasing the Moon, followed by a panel discussion with distinguished experts that represent the past, present and future of space research and exploration. This event is free, but registration is required.


Join WVPT and WHTJ PBS on Friday, July 12th for a special event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing! This event will include opening remarks byUVA Department of Astronomy Professor, Edward Murphy, an exclusive hour-long screening of the new PBS American Experience film, “Chasing the Moon,” followed by a panel discussion with distinguished experts that represent the past, present, and future of space research and exploration. Doors open at 6:30 PM. This event is free, but registration is required.

Featured Panelists:

  • Edward Murphy: University of Virginia Department of Astronomy - Director of the McCormick Observatory

  • Carrie Rhoads: NASA Langley Research Center - Flight Systems Engineer

  • Christopher P. Goyne, Ph.D.: University of Virginia Associate Professor of Mech. & Aero. Engr. - Director, Aerospace Research Laboratory / Libertas CubeSat Spacecraft Project

  • Erin Puckette: University of Virginia 2019 Aerospace Engineering - Virginia CubeSat Constellation Lead

  • Larry Fredrick: Former Chair of the University of Virginia Astronomy Department - Former Director of McCormick Observatory

For more about this event and the Chasing the Moon film, visit us at

Join the conversation throughout the film at #ChasingTheMoonPBS.

Telescope for Schools, Scouts, bring Astronomy to live for children in Virginia

July 2, 2019

Steve Layman, an amateur astronomer who’s made a career in music, works with the astronomy department to bring telescopes to schools and Scouts. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The telescope loaner program, called CLUSTER (for Chandra Loans UVA’s Telescopes to Educators) began with an education grant from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. It is now run with financial support from the Friends of the McCormick Observatory, a group of amateur astronomers and enthusiasts who volunteer time and resources during public observing nights (the first and third Fridays of every month) at UVA’s historic observatory. Members of the Charlottesville Astronomical Society also volunteer during events. Learn more here:

Timothy P. McCullough, Jr. Scholarship in Astronomy

June 7, 2019

The Astronomy Department is pleased to announce the creation of the Timothy P. McCullough, Jr. Scholarship in Astronomy, named for Dr. McCullough (1910-2004), who was a research physicist and radio astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. Dr. McCullough made some of the first radio measurements of many objects in the Solar System. His radio measurements of Venus were among the first to indicate that Venus had a very high surface temperature. He also studied Mars and Jupiter. Later, his interest turned to supernovas, galaxies, and solar flares. Dr. McCullough was a Naval veteran of World War II and the Korean War. In the image below, Dr. McCullough is shown in Attu in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, making radio observations of the Sun during the 12 September 1950 total solar eclipse. More information on Dr. McCullough’s life and career can be found at:

The scholarship of $1,000 for one year will be awarded each year to a rising 3rd year Astronomy or Astronomy-Physics major. The first award will be announced this summer (2019).

The award is made possible by a very generous gift from Dr. McCullough’s son, Robert (Gene) McCullough. Gene McCullough is a U.Va. alum who graduated with a degree in Physics and was in the first contingent of Echols Scholars at U.Va.

Spinning black hole has rapidly pivoting jets

April 29, 2019

Astronomers, including Craig Sarazin from U.Va., have discovered jets shooting out at nearly the speed of light from the regions around a black hole, and which are changing their direction rapidly (minutes to hours).  This reorientation of the jets is due to the Lense-Thirring Precession, an effect predicted by Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.  This effect is expected to occur near a rotating black hole, and is caused by the rotating black hole dragging space and time around with it as it rotates.  This is believed to be the first direct observation of the Lense-Thirring Precession occurring around a black hole.  The black hole is surrounded by a disk of material (an accretion disk).   The rotation of this accretion disk and the spin of the black hole are misaligned.  The inner part of the accretion disk is wobbling (“precessing”) as a result of the very strong gravity of the black hole.  This wobble is similar to that of a spinning top as it slows down, but in this case it is due to the distortions of space and time from the rotating black hole, as predicted by Einstein’s theory.

The black hole is part of a binary star system with the rather unromantic name V404 Cygni.  The precessing jets were observed in radio emission with the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a network of ten radio telescopes spread across the United States, from the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Hawaii. The VLBA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), whose headquarters are on the U.Va. grounds.

This research was published on Monday, April 29 in the journal Nature.  The research is part of a project originally conceived in Charlottesville by James Miller-Jones (originally a scientist at NRAO, now a professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia), Greg Sivakoff (originally a graduate student and post-doc at U.Va., now a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada), and Sarazin.

The figure shows radio emission from the black hole V404 Cygni superposed on a model for the binary system, accretion disk, and precessing jets.

Video from the observations and simulations of the system are available at.

You can read more about the discovery in the article at UVAToday.

Reaching for the Stars in the UVA Community

April 24, 2019

A University of Virginia-led program, “Dark Skies, Bright Kids,” has been bringing astronomy to local schools in Albemarle County for more than 10 years, opening up a universe of possibilities and knowledge for children in the Charlottesville community.

You can watch the video at UVA Today: Reaching for the Stars in the UVA Community

Mengyao Liu Wins Two Prestigious Awards

April 23, 2019

Graduate student Mengyao Liu has been selected as a 2019-2020 Jefferson Scholars Foundation Dissertation Year Fellow. The merit based fellowships are designed to "identify Ph.D. and M.B.A. candidates who demonstrate outstanding achievement and the highest promise as scholars, teachers, public servants, and business leaders in the United States and beyond. Once selected, Jefferson Fellows are charged with furthering the quality of education, intellectual life, and mission of the University."

Mengyao also received the 2019 Allan Talbott Gwathmey Memorial Award, "an honor reserved for the most accomplished graduate students in the physical sciences at the University of Virginia in recognition of a distinguished scholarly publication.” 

Mengyao's research on luminous protostars was also recently featured in a SOFIA Spotlight article.

Spiraling Giants: Witnessing the Birth of a Massive Binary Star

March 18, 2019

An international group of astronomers, including Jonathan Tan from the University of Virginia, have made observations of a molecular cloud that is collapsing to form two massive protostars that will eventually become a binary star system. The observations showed that, even at this early stage, the cloud contains two objects: a massive “primary” central star and another “secondary” forming star, with a combined mass of at least 18 times that of our Sun. For the first time, the researchers were able to use these observations to deduce the dynamics of the system. The observations showed that the two forming stars are separated by distance of about 180 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is the distance from the Earth to the Sun) and they orbit each other with a period of, at most, 570 years.

According to Tan, "Massive stars are important throughout the universe, including for producing the heavy elements that make up our Earth and our own bodies, but their formation mechanism is literally shrouded in mystery, being so deeply embedded in dusty clouds.” 

You can read more at UVA Today. The results were published in Nature Astronomy.


AAS 233 Chambliss Student Awards Winners

January 30, 2019


The Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards are given to recognize exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students who present at one of the poster sessions at the meetings of the AAS. Awardees are honored with a Chambliss medal or, in the case of honorable mention, a certificate. Three University of Virginia student were among the winners! Graduate students H. Thankful Cromartie and Molly Finn were both Medal winners, and undergraduate Eric Rohr was an Honorable Mention. More information and full list of winners can be found here:

Total Lunar Eclipse - Jan 2019

January 17, 2019

Late Sunday night into early Monday morning, the moon will “go from full, to nearly disappearing, to being full again in the course of a few hours,” University of Virginia astronomy professor Ed Murphy said. Learn more at this UVA Today Article.

“Lazy” Start of Star Formation Find from SDSS

January 9, 2019

Astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) reached the conclusion that after a “lazy” start of star formation for the first few billion years of their lives, both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are now forming new stars at a rapid rate. They made the first-ever detailed chemical maps of galaxies beyond our own. UVA graduate and study leader, David Nidever said, “Reading these maps helps us reconstruct the history of how these galaxies formed their stars.” “Both the Magellanic Clouds started off by making stars very slowly,” says Christian Hayes, a key member of the research team and current graduate student at UVA. Read more here:


Image: Rachael Beaton, Borja Anguiano and Steve Majewski

The Heart of the Lion

January 8, 2019

This Hubble image taken by University of Virginia astronomer Craig Sarazin of the nearby elliptical galaxy Messier 105 (also called NGC 3379) is currently the Hubble Space Telescope Picture of the Week (January 7 - 11).   Although the image was taken primarily to study the relationship between stellar mass black holes and globular star clusters, it has also been used to study the 200 million solar mass supermassive black hole at the galaxy center and star formation in and near this galaxy.  More information and images are available at:

UVa Astronomer Helps to Image Ultima Thule

January 5, 2019

Anne Verbiscer,  Research Professor in Astronomy, is the Assistant Project Scientist for NASA’s New Horizons Mission, which flew by Ultima Thule on January 1, producing the picture shown above.  Ultima Thule is the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.  Verbiscer was interviewed for the NOVA TV program which aired the following night.  She said: "When I first saw the images, I think I probably said ‘wow’ a million times.”  The NOVA program is available at, and a much longer news item was featured on UVaToday.

Ultima Thule Occultation in Senegal

September 12, 2018

University of Virginia astronomers Mike Skrutskie and Anne Verbiscer led a group of undergraduate UVA students to Sénégal to participate in a campaign to observe the occultation of a distant star by the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule. Ultima Thule is the target of a flyby by the New Horizons spacecraft on January 1, 2019. The occultation can reveal details about Ultima Thule, such as its diameter and may reveal whether it is surrounded by a ring or moons.

You can learn more in this NASA Press Release or in the New York Times

Galaxy Stars

Rapid Results from the Gaia Data Release 2

May 14, 2018

UVA astronomer Nitya Kallivayalil was interviewed on German public radio about the very rapid prepartion and submission of papers just after the second data release from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission. Kallivayalil's paper featured the discovery of satellite galaxies that are falling into the Milky Way with the Magellanic Clouds ( The paper was submitted within a week of the data release!

You can listen to the full interview (in German) at

Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins

May 1, 2018

The Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins (VICO) officially began operations on May 1st. VICO is an interdisciplinary research program focussed on the formation of stars, planets and life in the Universe and supported by $1 million from UVa’s Strategic Investment Fund. Led by Prof. Eric Herbst, VICO brings together faculty from the Depts. of Astronomy, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, and Materials Science & Engineering, as well as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. VICO is also partnering with Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Several new Origins postdoctoral researchers have been recruited, who will join UVa in 2018. VICO is also supporting student research opportunities, including eight summer undergraduate fellowships, including placements at Chalmers University in Sweden. Look out for future announcements about VICO positions and events in the near future! (Image courtesy of Tyler Jones)

UVA Astronomy People

Ilse Cleeves Wins the Annie Jump Cannon Award

January 10, 2018

Incoming University of Virginia astronomy faculty member Ilse Cleeves has been awarded the Annie Jump Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society for "her groundbreaking work on planet formation and protoplanetary disks. She has established herself as an expert in astrochemical signatures in circumstellar disks."


Read more about the Annie Jump Cannon Award

Unraveling the Mysteries of Colossal Stars

January 10, 2018

A team of astronomers, including Jonathan Tan of Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden and the University of Virginia, are using NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to study the births of massive stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. “Understanding the birth process of massive stars is one of the most important unsolved problems of modern astrophysics, since these stars are so influential throughout our galaxy and beyond.” says Tan. “The unique ability of the SOFIA telescope to see at infrared wavelengths – wavelengths that are 100 times longer than those of visible light -- is crucial for progress on this research, since this is the part of the spectrum where the stars emit most of their energy.”

Read more about the project at

Charlottesville Ed Murphy McCormick Observatory

Unafraid to Ask More: APOGEE

December 13, 2017

The UVa-led APOGEE project to study the structure and evolution of our Milky Way galaxy is featured in a new video Unafraid to Ask More.

UVA Astronomy Awards

John Wilson Awarded the Muhlmann Prize of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

October 28, 2017

Dr. John Wilson, a Senior Research Scientist in the Department of Astronomy, is the recipient of the 2017 Maria and Eric Muhlmann award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. This award recognizes recent significant observational results made possible by innovative advances in astronomical instrumentation, software, or observational infrastructure and is one of the few in the astronomical world focused on instrumentation.

The award highlights John Wilson’s leadership in the design and development of the state-of-the-art spectrograph for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE) as well as the contributions of the entire APOGEE  team.   This spectrograph is capable of dispersing the light of 300 stars simultaneously, providing a detailed examination of their elemental constituents. Doing so has enabled one of the first comprehensive experiments to reconstruct the assembly history of our Milky Way galaxy since these elemental ratios are a fingerprint pointing to the individual star’s origins. John led the development of not just one, but two spectrographs – one deployed to Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico and one to Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. By covering both the northern and southern hemispheres the two instruments provide access to the entire celestial sphere.  The spectrographs employ novel technologies such as 300 fiber optic feeds bringing infrared light into the vacuum-cryogenic instrument, refractive silicon optics larger than previously possible, and the largest volume-phase holographic grating ever produced for an astronomical instrument.   Constructing the instrument required the input of roughly one hundred engineers and scientists and a number of private companies, all masterfully coordinated by Wilson to produce these spectrographs within their $5 million budgets and in the time allotted.  To date the instruments are responsible for data that has led to the publication of more than 200 scientific papers and the publication rate continues to increase, particularly given the start of operations of the second APOGEE spectrograph at Las Campanas Observatory.   The APOGEE spectrograph represents just one (actually two, technically) of Wilson’s instrumentation successes over the nearly 15 years he has worked at UVa, where he has been central to the delivery of a variety of unique infrared cameras and spectrographs all over the world.

You can read more at the ASP announcement of the Award.


Oxygen-deficient Dwarf Galaxy Hints at Makings of Early Universe

September 25, 2017

Professor Trinh Thuan and colleagues recently discovered a dwarf galaxy in the constellation Lynx that is so oxygen-deficient that may serve well as a proxy for better understanding the developing chemistry of the early universe. Their new finding, to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, shows that the oxygen level in the little galaxy is the lowest yet discovered in any star-forming galaxy, likely resembling nascent galaxies in the early universe. The star-forming dwarf galaxy in the new study was found during an ongoing, large-scale inventory of the heavens, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which revealed it as a possible point of interest. The team of astronomers then targeted it for further scrutiny using the powerful Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. Data from the that telescope revealed that the tiny star-forming galaxy, dubbed J0811+4730, is a record-breaker: It has 9 percent less oxygen than any other so far discovered.

The team found that a considerable fraction (80%) of the stellar mass of the galaxy was formed only a few million years ago, making this one of the best counterparts found of primordial galaxies. Because of its extremely low oxygen level, this galaxy serves as an accessible proxy for star-forming galaxies that came together within one to two billion years after the Big Bang, the early period of our nearly 14 billion-year-old universe. The dwarf galaxy also is of interest because it provides clues to how the early simple universe became re-ionized by early star formation, moving it from the so-called cosmic Dark Ages of neutral gases to the development of the complexly structured universe now in existence, where the gas between galaxies is ionized.

Thuan’s colleagues on the study are astronomers Yuri Izotov and Natalia Guseva of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, and graduate student Sandy Liss of UVA.

For more details, see the New Scientist  article:

and the UVA today article: