Saturn was the first planet I ever looked at through a telescope. Its magnificent rings were just a blur, but I could tell from its oddly misshapen figure that this planet was something else—something grand.

     I had an even more profound moment when I looked through the Great Lick historical 36-inch refractor telescope on Mt. Hamilton during my third year of college. The grandeur of the dome, the way one slew the telescope by hand, and the sliver of moonlight creeping in through the windows of the building added a tantalizing mystique to the already breathtaking encounter between my squinting eyes and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites.

     Science, and planets in particular, has a giddying effect on me. It's these personal discoveries that excite me, constantly reminding me that I am on the right track as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington and the Virtual Planetary Laboratory.


research interests



In the time since I was born, we have gone from knowing about zero planets orbiting other stars to a catalog of over 4,000 strange new worlds. Yet much remains to be discovered about these planets' exact natures. This is especially true of small, terrestrial worlds—the ones that may, or may not, resemble our home. What are their environments like? Could any of them harbor life? If so, how might we detect it?

     My current research investigates the chemistry of exoplanetary atmospheres around other types of stars. Imagine taking Venus and throwing it around a cool, dim, red star—the most common type of star in the galaxy. (One such red dwarf is TRAPPIST-1, which is known to host seven roughly Earth-sized planets—some of which orbit within the star's habitable zone.) How does a complex web of chemical reactions change in response to a different distribution of starlight?

the emergence of life

I love stories, and science tells us the most incredible story of all. Not only are we children of our parents, but of the Earth and the universe as well. How did we become the magnificent biological contraptions that we are? Which forces first culminated in the powers of metabolism and reproduction? What was written on our first page? And are there similar stories all across the cosmos? There is still so much we don't know about our own living existence, especially when it comes to our enigmatic birth.

    I modeled the production of nitrogen oxides on early Earth, which is a potentially crucial ingredient for the theory of the emergence of life at submarine alkaline hydrothermal vents. With my colleague Dr. Stuart Bartlett, I published a perspective on emergence-of-life theories, introducing lyfe, a new definition of life based on four fundamental processes that characterize the living state.



ancient mars

Our next-door neighbor is a conundrum. Ancient landforms and minerals indicate that Mars was once much wetter than the bone-dry desert that it is today. But climate models of ancient Mars fail to attain high enough temperatures for liquid water to flow at a time when the Sun was only three-quarters as bright. The answer to this paradox may be an abundance of hydrogen and methane in Mars's early atmosphere.

     With Danica Adams and others, I helped model the production of nitrogen-bearing compounds—including nitrogen oxides and hydrogen cyanide—on a wet, warm early Mars that featured substantial atmospheric hydrogen and methane. These chemicals may have contributed key nutrients for the emergence and sustainment of life on the Red Planet early in its history. With Lucas Fifer, I am working on quantifying the habitability of ancient Mars.

present-day mars

Present-day Mars is a world both familiar and alien. Like Earth, Mars has mountains and valleys, sand dunes and ice caps, clouds and dust bunnies. But on Mars there is no sign of active plate tectonics, no sign of long-lived surface water, and, perhaps most intriguingly, no definitive sign of life.

     Like a mechanical Sherlock Holmes, the Curiosity rover has been looking for clues that will bring us answers about Mars's past and present. Curiosity's recent confirmation of methane in Mars's atmosphere has piqued my interest. What is its source—biology or geology? And what's responsible for its mysterious temporal variability?

     I was part of two Keck Institute for Space Studies workshops dedicated to unraveling the mystery of methane on Mars, which culminated in a comprehensive review paper led by my PhD advisor, Professor Yuk L. Yung.




In July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft unveiled a stunning sight: Pluto. This frozen world exhibits extraordinary complexity, from its diverse terrain to the varied hues painting its surface to its unexpected atmospheric structure. Such features point to ongoing geological activity. Pluto may be cold and tiny, but it is certainly not boring.

     Using an adapted photochemical model for Titan (see below) and data from New Horizons, my colleagues and I sought to understand how atmospheric physics and chemistry behaves under Pluto's unprecedentedly low temperatures and pressures. Dr. Peter Gao and I published a pair of papers, one on Pluto's photochemistry and one on the microphysics of Pluto's fractal aggregate haze.


An icy moon of Saturn, Titan is the only Solar System object aside from Earth that boasts stable liquid reservoirs on its surface. It is also the only other body in the Solar System that is sheathed by a thick nitrogen-dominated atmosphere. This vulnerable gaseous envelope—the result of a delicate coupling between photochemistry, radiation, and dynamics—is Nature’s laboratory for the synthesis of complex organic molecules.

     In the distant past, Titan's atmosphere may have existed in a methane-depleted state, rendering the moon even colder than it is today. In such a "snowball state," I found that Titan's atmosphere would have produced a higher proportion of nitriles to hydrocarbons. This might help explain Titan's "missing ethane" problem and provides a testable hypothesis that the upcoming Dragonfly mission could potentially verify.



For a full list of my scientific publications, see my CV.

© 2021 :: michael l. wong :: :: follow your bliss