Research in the Space Sciences

Our Research

Research topics in the space sciences at Washington University cover a broad range, extending the structure of the universe as a whole, to stars, planets, specimens from meteorites, the moon and Earth, and microscopic tracks left by single atoms. These phenomena reveal the development and operation of our broadest surroundings, from the beginning of the universe, through the evolution of stars, the origin of the solar system (some 4.5 billion years ago), the evolution of lunar craters (mostly finished), the evolution of Earth's continents and oceans (still changing), and the theorist's predictions of the future.

The astrophysical environment provides conditions unavailable in the laboratory for grand-scale testing of fundamental laws of physics. Thus, general relativity studies are being made of the large-scale structure of the universe, and nuclear many-body interactions are being examined to model the superdense matter of neutron stars. Some astronomical objects exhibit rapid fluctuations in their outputs of radiation. Among these are recently discovered X-ray sources, the distant and energetic quasars, and BL Lac objects. These are being studied through telescopes with fast electro-optical instruments that measure fluctuations in radiation intensity and polarization that occur in less than one millisecond. New, ground-breaking uses of optical spectroscopy are being employed to determine compositions of distant interstellar gas and dust grains and cometary matter. These studies are complemented by laboratory laser spectroscopic studies of substances of astrophysical interest. 

Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration launches new augmented reality app

Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration launches new augmented reality app

Olga Pravdivtseva received a NASA grant

Olga Pravdivtseva received a NASA grant

student and faculty

Faculty Research Areas

Particle Physics, Gravitation and Cosmology

Astroparticle Physics and Multimessenger Astrophysics

Cosmochemistry, Cosmochronology and Origins of the Solar System

Exploration of Planetary Habitability

Life in the Universe

Experimental, Observational & Theoretical Astrophysics

Equipment & Facilities

Special equipment/facilities housed in the Department of Physics:


Special equipment/facilities housed in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences:

  • Electron Microprobe and X-ray Diffraction Laboratories
  • CEM Mars6 Microwave Reaction System
  • Cavity ring-down spectroscopy analyzer for stable isotope ratios in water
  • JEOL JXA-8200 Electron Microprobe
  • Thermo iCap 7400 DUO Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emissions Spectrometer (ICP-OES)
  • Thermo Dionex Integrion Ion Chromatograph (IC)
  • Elementar vario MacroCube Elemental Analyzer (also referred to as a CHNS analyzer)
  • Seal AQ300 Discrete Analyzer
  • Atomic Force Microscope
  • Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration
  • Gas Chromatography Instrumentation for Analysis of Organic Compounds (Gas Chromatographs coupled to Flame Ionization Detector (GCFID), Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer (GCIRMS, Gas Bench IRMS, ECSIRMS))
  • Geosciences Node of NASA’s Planetary Data System
  • High Performance Computing Facility
  • High-Pressure and Temperature Chemistry 
  • High-Temperature Controlled Atmosphere Furnaces 
  • Two laser Raman microprobes with a multichannel analyzer
  • Micro X-Ray Fluorescence 
  • Near and Mid Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory

    Visiting Scientist Program

    The McDonnell Center has a rich history of visiting scientists collaborating with Washington University’s space science research efforts. The Center provides resources to bring scientists to the Washington University campus for periods of up to one year. Visiting scientists have represented broad areas of expertise, such as Non-accelerator Particle Physics, Gravitational Waves, and Cosmology. This program infuses new ideas and concepts into the Washington University scientific community. At the same time visiting scientists benefit from access to established university faculty.

    Victor A. Khodel, Russian Research Centre, Kurchatov Institute, Moscow, has visited the Washington University campus for ten years. He and John W. Clark, Wayman Crow Professor of Physics, continue collaborations on Phase Transitions in Dense Astrophysical Matter.  Their research project seeks a deeper understanding of the internal microstructure of neutron stars, and especially the exotic phases of matter that are expected to be present inside these superdense objects. Clark and Khodel develop and apply advanced methods of quantum many-body theory, with the goal of quantitative prediction of microscopic properties of neutron-star matter having significant impact on observable properties of neutron stars. Their approaches are informed by and contribute to rapidly evolving theoretical concepts and techniques of condensed-matter physics.

    Astrid Holzheid, Institute of Geosciences, Kiel University, Germany, has been a regular visitor since her first time at Washington University in 1995 as a visiting PhD student.  Since then she has been a collaborator with Professor Bruce Fegley, Jr. and Dr. Katharina Lodders of the Planetary Chemistry Laboratory and now expanded research efforts include Professor Kun Wang of the Isotope Cosmochemistry Laboratory.  Current research is about K and Cu isotopic fractionation during vaporization to understand how vaporization from magma ocean can affect isotopic fractionation.


    Affiliated Research Groups