Christian Aganze awarded Beth Brown Memorial Award

Christian Aganze, a graduate student in the Cool Star Lab, was awarded the Beth Brown Memorial Award at the 2020 National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) conference in November 2020. The Beth Brown Memorial Award recognizes exceptional research presented by an undergraduate and graduate students at the NSBP meeting, and is co-organized by NSBP and the American Astronomical Association (AAS). Christian was cited for giving the Best Graduate Student Poster Presentation at the NSBP conference for his work on “Searching for Distant Ultracool Dwarfs in Deep HST/WFC3 Surveys.”

The Beth Brown Memorial award honors Dr. Beth Brown, the first African American woman to earn a PhD in 1998 from the University of Michigan’s astronomy department. She made a significant impact on the field of astronomy, as a National Academy of Science & National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Fellow, an Astrophysics Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a visiting Assistant Professor at Howard University. She passed away unexpectedly in 2008 at the age of 39 years old.

Award recipients receive complimentary registration at a future AAS meeting (including costs of travel) to present their research, and free membership as a student member or affiliate for one year. They are also invited to present their research at Howard University and the University of Michigan, two of Dr. Beth Brown’s alma maters.

Congratulations Christian on this prestigious award!

Additional Information:

Burgasser publishes on issues of inclusion in Nature Astronomy

Cool Star Lab PI Adam Burgasser recently published two Comments in Nature Astronomy, in a special issue focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in physical science.

The first Comment, “Why I Teach Growth Mindset“, led by Adam, discusses the concept of mindset, and how fixed mindset can amplify the struggles of marginalized students, mentees and peers in Astronomy and Physics. He describes how he addresses fixed mindset in workshops and in the classroom, and provides a toolkit for hosting a Growth Mindset workshop.

The second Comment, “Toward inclusive practices with indigenous knowledge“, led by Aparna Venakatesan, describes models of partnership with indigenous communities that integrate collaboration with integrity. Inspired by the 2015 Indigenous Worldviews in Informal Science Education conference, examples featured include Cosmic SerpentA Hua He InoaEnVision MaunakeaNative Universe, and Maunakea Scholars. This comment is based on a more detailed white paper submitted to the Astro2020 Decadal Review.

The Comments and Perspectives contributed to the Nature Astronomy issue are free to read and download until early January 2020; copies of these articles are also available on request to Adam.

Citizen Scientist Discovers Dusty Debris Disk Around White Dwarf

Citizen scientist Melina Thévenot of Germany helped the Backyard Worlds/Planet 9 program discover a unique white dwarf with a dusty debris disk, and observations made by Cool Star Lab members with the Keck/NIRES instrument were critical its confirmation. The work, led by STScI astronomer John Debes, was reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters today.

Since 2017, the Backyard Worlds project has been engaging citizen scientists to search through data from NASA’s WISE mission to identify overlooked stars in the vicinity of the Sun. These have mostly been cold brown dwarfs, of which the project has found more than 1,000 too date – more than one a day! But it also picks up other dim, red things, in this case the white dwarf LSPM J0207+3331.

White dwarfs are normally “blue” due to their high surface temperatures (they are after all the cores of spent stars), but this white dwarf is surrounded by a complex disk of dusty debris, likely the result of the tidal disruption of an orbiting planet or asteroid (the same process is likely responsible for the rings around Saturn and other giant planets). This disk, heated by the white dwarf, glows in the infrared, allowing it to show up in WISE. While tidal debris disks aren’t new around white dwarfs (Cool Star Lab’s Carl Melis is specialist in this area), both the structure of this disk—which appears to be made of several distinct ring-like components—and that age of the white dwarf are surprising.

Very little was known about J0207+3331 prior to its identification by Melina in the Backyard Worlds program; only one prior paper had identified it as a high proper motion star. After an initial attempt to measure its spectrum was foiled by bad weather, it was therefore up to Cool Star Lab members Adam Burgasser & Jon Rees to get the necessary spectral data. Using the newly-commissioned NIRES instrument on Keck (during admittedly more not so great weather), Adam & Jon managed to measure the near-infrared spectrum of the source, which was largely consistent with a hot blackbody with slight uptick at the red end. This tiny bit of near-infrared excess, and the much greater mid-infrared excess in WISE photometry, could arise from several things, including an unseen brown dwarf companion (much like the first L dwarf ever discovered, GD 165B). However, we were able to show that the combined NIRES spectrum and WISE photometry were inconsistent with any white dwarf-brown dwarf combination, leaving a debris disk as the best model. (For once, Adam was happy not to find a brown dwarf!)

(Left) Analysis of our NIRES spectrum shows that any brown dwarf companion to J0207+0331 would be too small (blue dots) compared to model predictions to reproduce the observed excess, which rules out the binary model. (Right) instead, a model that includes a single white dwarf (orange line) and a debris ring system (red dashed line) can fit both spectral and photometric data (from Debes et al. 2019)

The NIRES spectrum, which contains several weak Hydrogen lines, allowed our team to determine the temperature and surface gravity of the white dwarf, and in turn its mass (0.69±0.02 solar masses) and age (3.0±0.2 billion years). By combining all of the data together, our team was also able to generate a model for the disk, which requires more than one “ring” of material with a total mass greater than a typical asteroid or comet. Both of these features are surprising: structure in the ring suggests there may be another body clearing a gap in the disk, or perhaps there have been two tidal disruption events that happened sequentially. This dust should also be cleared our “relatively” quickly (“relatively” = few 100 million years), requiring a “relatively” recent disruption.

Overall, the properties of J0207+3331 suggest that planetary systems may be continuously dismantled for billions of years after a star dies, which gives us a lot more time to study the innards of planets after tidal dissection (yech!). Moreover, the discovery of such an interesting, and relatively nearby system (only 45 parsecs, or 150 light-years, away), means that there may be many more such systems out there. Plenty of opportunity for future citizen scientists like Melina Thévenot!

Here are some links to press reports on this result:






Backyard Worlds Blog, where Melina Thévenot describes her discovery:

Want to find your own new world? Give Backyard Worlds/Planet 9 a try!

Cool Star Lab Alumna Jackie Faherty Talks Supermoon on NPR


Cool Star Lab alumna Dr. Jackie Faherty, now a Senior Scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, spoke to NPR today about tonight’s “Supermoon” phenomenon.

The Moon’s orbit is an ellipse with an average eccentricity of 0.05, and therefore varies between 363,000 km (perigee) and 405,000 km (apogee) from Earth.  When the Moon is close to perigee at Full Moon (a “perigee syzygy”), it can appear 10% wider and thus 22% brighter than a Full Moon near apogee.

Image of the full moon from NASA

However, the gravitational tugs of the Sun, Jupiter and Venus actually perturb the orbit of the Moon enough to drive the eccentricity to a range of values, typically between 0.026 and 0.077.  So tonight’s Moon is just a little bit closer (357,000 km), and is estimated to be about 30% brighter than an apogee Full Moon. This makes it the brightest supermoon since 1948, and the next closer one won’t be until 2034.

You can hear more details about the Supermoon from Jackie’s NPR segment at


Work by Cool Star Lab Alumna Aishwarya Iyer Featured in NASA Press Release

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Cool Star Lab alumna Aishwarya Iyer, currently a Master’s student at CSU Northridge and intern at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has recently published work on exoplanet atmospheres that has been featured in a NASA Press Release. Her paper, “A Characteristic Transmission Spectrum Dominated by H2O Applies to the Majority of HST/WFC3 Exoplanet Observations“, published in the Astrophysical Journal, concludes that most hot Jupiter atmospheres likely contain water vapor, even those that show weak water features. This is due to the role of hazes and clouds, which can obscure molecular gas features. Aisha and her team performed a comprehensive analysis of 19 Hot Jupiter transmission spectra taken by HST/WFC3, and modeling analysis indicates that the bulk of water vapor lies below the cloud layers. This work is a major advance in understanding the role of clouds and haze in exoplanetary atmospheres, which are also important constituents in brown dwarf atmospheres.

The paper can be accessed at…823..109I and the press release can be found at