College of Arts and Sciences
General Information  |  Academic Information  |  Departments and Programs  |  Faculty
Course Descriptions

Department of Astronomy

204 Astronomy Building
University of Virginia
P.O. Box 400325
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4325
(434) 924-7494 Fax: (434) 924-3104

Overview Although the study of astronomy has ancient roots, it is now one of the most rapidly developing and exciting subjects in modern science. Astronomy studies the universe and its contents: planets, stars, black holes, galaxies, and quasars. Each of these is a fascinating topic in its own right; but perhaps the greatest achievement of modern astronomy has been to gather them all into a rich and coherent picture, one which depicts the origin and evolution of all things, from the Big Bang to the development of living organisms. The excitement and accessibility of astronomy is clear from the frequent press coverage of major new revelations, including the discovery of planets orbiting other stars, the census of Earth-threatening asteroids, very young galaxies in the distant universe, and primeval ripples in the cosmic background radiation, all enabled by continuing advances in telescope and sensor technology. Astronomy draws from, and contributes to, physics, as well as geology, atmospheric and environmental science, biology, and even philosophy.

The astronomy department offers students the opportunity to explore these frontier discoveries, whether or not they are science majors. For non-science majors, courses are offered on both general astronomy and more specialized topics of current interest (e.g. cosmology). For students with more serious interests in the field, the department provides intensive coverage of the subject, fostering the development of fundamental analytical and quantitative skills that are useful in many different post-graduate careers. A total of 25 astronomy courses are open to undergraduates, and the department sponsors two majors programs. The astronomy major offers a concentration on science in the context of a liberal arts degree for students who do not intend to pursue graduate training in physical science. The astronomy-physics major provides more rigorous preparation for graduate work in astronomy, physics, computer science, or related fields.

Faculty The University has the largest astronomy department in the Southeastern United States. Its seventeen faculty members are committed to strong undergraduate teaching as well as research. As one of the top fifteen research departments in the country, there is considerable faculty expertise spanning a wide range of subjects, from the evolution of stars, to simulations of massive black holes with supercomputers, to observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites, to studies of the evolution of the universe. Active faculty research programs keep classroom teaching up-to-date, and are particularly important in tutorial and senior thesis projects. Faculty research is well supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Students There are typically 15 to 25 students majoring in astronomy or astronomy-physics, which allows students to get to know each other well and promotes team work. Close contact with the faculty is an integral part of the learning environment. Many students work one-on-one with faculty in tutorials or senior theses, and this work is often published in major research journals. Students also work at the University’s observatory or in summer research projects supported by grants. Advanced students may, with instructor permission, enroll in graduate courses.

Most students who complete the astronomy-physics degree pursue graduate programs in astronomy or physics, frequently at the best schools in the country. Students who complete the astronomy degree are well-prepared for a wide range of careers. The department’s graduates have obtained employment with universities, NASA, federal observatories and laboratories, planetariums, and aerospace and computer corporations. Many have also gone into medicine, law, the military, business, science writing, and science education.

Special Resources The department is very well equipped to support its students. There are excellent general and research collections in our library. A wide variety of telescopes are available on Grounds: 6-, 8-, and 10-inch aperture instruments, some equipped with digital CCD cameras. The historic 26-inch Clark refractor resides at McCormick Observatory, which is located on Grounds at Mount Jefferson and is the main instrument used in the ASTR 313 laboratory class. Thirty- and forty-inch reflecting telescopes with CCD cameras and spectrographs are available to more advanced students at Fan Mountain Observatory, located 15 miles south of Charlottesville on an isolated peak at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2002 the University joined a consortium of institutions which is building the world’s largest telescope–the Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham, Arizona.

The department offers outstanding computing and image-processing facilities based on a network of Sun Microsystems UNIX workstations. The headquarters of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory is on Grounds, and this provides the opportunity for majors to work with radio astronomers, making use of telescopes located in New Mexico or West Virginia. Finally, many of our faculty obtain astronomical data from major national telescopes, both ground-based and space-based (e.g. the Hubble Space Telescope, the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, and X-ray satellites). Frequently, students work with this data as part of their own thesis projects. As soon as students declare an astronomy major, they are assigned a computer account with the department and have 24-hour access to its library and other facilities.

Requirements for the Astronomy Major The Bachelor of Arts degree in Astronomy, not intended as preparation for graduate study in science, provides a firm grounding in basic astronomy, mathematics, physics, and computer science. Students take ASTR 121, 124 (or 211, 212), 313, 498 (Senior Thesis), and twelve additional credits of 300-500 level astronomy courses. Students are also required to take MATH 121, 122 (or 131, 132); PHYS 231, 232 (or 151, 152, 251, 252); and PHYS 254 or CS 101. This program offers considerable opportunities for students to pursue interests in other subjects, and is well suited for inclusion in a double major.

Requirements for the Astronomy-Physics Major The Bachelor of Arts degree in Astronomy-Physics is offered jointly by the astronomy and physics departments. This program prepares students for graduate study in astronomy, physics, computer science, and related fields. Students take MATH 131, 132, 231, 325, 521, 522; PHYS 254 or CS 101; PHYS 151, 152, 251, 252, 221, 222, 321, 331, 342, 343, 355; and ASTR 211, 212, 313, 395, 498 (Senior Thesis), and six additional credits of 300-500 level astronomy courses.

Prospective astronomy-physics majors are strongly urged to consult with the astronomy undergraduate advisor during registration week of their first semester at the University.

Distinguished Majors Program in Astronomy-Physics

Students must maintain a GPA of 3.400 or better. For the Distinguished Major Program (DMP), students must meet the requirements of the astronomy-physics major described above and must also take PHYS 356 and a two-semester Senior Thesis (ASTR 498). The six credits of elective astronomy courses must consist of ASTR 451 and a 500-level course. This program leads to the award of degrees with distinction, high distinction, or highest distinction.

Requirements for the Minor in Astronomy The Minor Program in Astronomy is intended mainly for students with a strong interest in the subject who do not have the time to commit to the mathematics and physics courses required for the major. Requirements for the minor can be completed in either of two ways. Students can take either ASTR 121, 124, 130, and six additional credits of 300-400 level astronomy courses, or ASTR 211, 212, and nine additional credits of 300-400 level astronomy courses.

Additional Information For more information, contact the Undergraduate Advisor, Department of Astronomy, 530 McCormick Rd., P.O. Box 400325, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4325; (434) 924-7494; Fax: (434) 924-3104; ugradadv@ astsun.astro.virginia.edu; www.astro.virginia.edu.

Course Descriptions


ASTR 121 - (3) (S)
Introduction to the Sky and Solar System
A study of the night sky primarily for non-science majors. Provides a brief history of astronomy through Newton. Topics include the properties of the sun, earth, moon, planets, asteroids, meteors and comets; origin and evolution of the solar system; life in the universe; and recent results from space missions and ground-based telescopes.

ASTR 124 - (3) (S)
Introduction to Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe
A study of stars, star formation, and evolution primarily for non-science majors. Topics include light, atoms, and modern observing technologies; origin of the chemical elements; supernovae, pulsars, neutron stars, and black holes; structure and evolution of our galaxy; nature of other galaxies; active galaxies and quasars; expanding universe, cosmology, the big bang, and the early universe.

ASTR 130 - (3) (S)
Introduction to Astronomical Observation
Prerequisite/corequisite: ASTR 121 or 124, or instructor permission.
Primarily for non-science majors. An independent laboratory class, generally meeting at night, in which students work individually or in small groups on observational projects that focus on the study of constellations, planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies. Binoculars, 6- through 10-inch telescopes, and imaging equipment are used extensively at the department’s student observatory. Some projects use computers to simulate observations taken with much larger telescopes.

Note: All astronomy courses may be used to satisfy the College natural sciences area requirements. Both ASTR 121 and 124 cover complementary subject matter at an introductory level. Each is complete in itself, and students may take only one, or both concurrently.

ASTR 170, 171 - (1) (SI)
Primarily for first and second year students, taught on a voluntary basis by a faculty member. Topics vary.

ASTR 211, 212 - (3) (Y)
General Astronomy
Prerequisite/corequisite: MATH 121 or 131, PHYS 151 or 231, or instructor permission; ASTR 211 and 212 form a sequence and should be taken in that order.
Primarily for science majors. A thorough discussion of the basic concepts and methods of solar system, stellar, galactic, and extragalactic astronomy with an emphasis on physical principles. Topics include recent research developments, such as black holes, pulsars, quasars, and new solar system observations from the space program.

ASTR 313 - (3) (Y)
Observational Astronomy
Prerequisite: ASTR 211, 212, or instructor permission.
Primarily for science majors. A laboratory course, generally meeting at night, that deals with basic observational techniques in astronomy. Students use observational facilities at the McCormick and Fan Mountain Observatories.

ASTR 314 - (3) (Y)
Introduction to Observational Radio Astronomy
Prerequisites: ASTR 211, 212.
An introduction to the tools, techniques, and science of radio astronomy. Discussion includes fundamentals of measuring radio signals, radiometers, antennas, and interferometers, supplemented by illustrative labs; radio emission mechanisms and simple radiative transfer; radio emission from the Sun and planets, stars, galactic and extragalactic sources, and the cosmic microwave background.

ASTR 341 - (3) (Y)
Prerequisite/corequisite: A 100- or 200-level ASTR course, or instructor permission.
Open to non-science students. Discussion of prescientific astronomy, including Mayan, Babylonian, and ancient Chinese astronomy, and the significance of relics such as Stonehenge. Discusses the usefulness of ancient records in the study of current astrophysical problems such as supernova outbursts. Uses current literature from several disciplines, including astronomy, archaeology, and anthropology.

ASTR 342 - (3) (Y)
Life Beyond the Earth
Prerequisite/corequisite: A 100- or 200-level ASTR course or instructor permission.
Open to non-science students. Studies the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life; methods and desirability of interstellar communication; prospects for humanity’s colonization of space; interaction of space colonies; and the search for other civilizations.

ASTR 346 - (3) (SI)
Development of Modern Astronomy
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
A reading course dealing with the history of astronomy.

ASTR 347 - (3) (Y)
Science and Controversy in Astronomy
Prerequisite/corequisite: ASTR 121 or 124, or instructor permission.
Open to non-science students. Investigates controversial topics in science and pseudo-science from the astronomer’s perspective. Analyzes methods of science and the nature of scientific evidence, and their implications for unresolved astrophysical problems. Topics include extraterrestrial life, UFO’s, Velikovsky, Von Daniken, and astrology.

ASTR 348 - (3) (Y)
Introduction to Cosmology
Open to first-year students; primarily for non-science students. A descriptive introduction to the study of the ultimate structure and evolution of the universe. Covers the history of the universe, cosmological speculation, and the nature of the galaxies. Provides a qualitative introduction to relativity theory and the nature of space-time, black holes, models of the universe (big bang, steady-state, etc.) and methods of testing them.

ASTR 351 — (3) (SI)
Planetary Astronomy
Prerequisite: Calculus or permission of instructor. Primarily for science majors.
The goal of this course is to understand the origins and evolution of bodies in the solar system. The observations of atmospheres and surfaces of planetary bodies by ground-based and orbiting telescopes and by spacecraft will be described. The principal topics will be the interpretation of remote sensing data for atmospheres and surfaces of planetary bodies, the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres, the interactions of these atmospheres with the surfaces and with the local plasma, and the role of meteorite and comet impacts on surfaces of planetary bodies.

ASTR 395 - (3) (S)
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Studies a topic of special interest to the student under individual supervision by a faculty member. May be repeated once for credit.

ASTR 444 - (3) (SI)
The Nature of Discovery in Astronomy
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Studies selected topics concerning the people, ideas, and principles that motivate the advance of twentieth-century astronomy.

ASTR 451 - (3) (Y)
Introduction to Astrophysics
Prerequisite: ASTR 211, 212; PHYS 252, or instructor permission.
Basic concepts in mechanics, statistical physics, atomic and nuclear structure, and radiative transfer are developed and applied to selected fundamental problems in the areas of stellar structure, stellar atmospheres, the interstellar medium, and extragalactic astrophysics.

ASTR 498 - (3) (S)
Senior Thesis
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
May be repeated once for credit.

ASTR 511 - (3) (O)
Astronomical Techniques
Prerequisite: ASTR 211-212; PHYS 342, 343 or instructor permission.
Surveys modern techniques of radiation measurement, data analysis, and image processing, and their application to astrophysical problems, especially the physical properties of stars and galaxies. Relevant laboratory experiments and observations with the department’s telescopes are included. Students are expected to develop a familiarity with programming and other basic computer skills if they do not already possess them.

ASTR 534 - (3) (E)
Introductory Radio Astronomy
Prerequisite: MATH 325, PHYS 252.
Studies the fundamentals of measuring power and power spectra, antennas, interferometers, and radiometers. Topics include thermal radiation, synchrotron radiation, and line frequency radiation; and radio emission from the planets, sun, flare stars, pulsars, supernovae, interstellar gas, galaxies, and quasi-stellar sources.

ASTR 535 - (3) (O)
Radio Astronomy Instrumentation
Prerequisite: ASTR 534 or instructor permission.
An introduction to the instrumentation of radio astronomy. Discussion includes fundamentals of measuring radio signals, noise theory, basic radiometry, antennas, low noise electronics, coherent receivers, signal processing for continuum and spectral line studies, and arrays. Lecture material is supplemented by illustrative labs.

ASTR 539, 540 - (3) (IR)
Topical Seminar
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Detailed study of a current topic. Topic to be covered appears in the Course Offering Directory for the semester in which it is given.

ASTR 542 - (3) (E)
The Interstellar Medium
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Topics include the physics of interstellar gas and grains, the distribution and dynamics of the gas, and cosmic radiation and interstellar magnetic fields.

ASTR 543, 544 - (3) (O)
Stellar Astrophysics
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Observation of the properties and physics of stars. Study of radiative transfer; stellar thermodynamics; convection; formation of spectra in atmospheres; equations of stellar structure; nuclear reactions; stellar evolution, and nucleosynthesis. Analysis of applicable numerical techniques.

ASTR 545 - (3) (E)
High Energy Astrophysics
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Introduces the physics of basic radiation mechanisms and particle acceleration processes which are important in high energy phenomena and space science. Applications to pulsars, active galactic nuclei, radio galaxies, quasars, and supernovae are discussed.

ASTR 546 - (3) (SI)
Binary Stars
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Topics include the determination of orbital elements, the mass-luminosity-radius relation, formation of binary systems, the Roche model, mass loss, mass transfer, circumstellar material, accretion disks, evolution of close interacting binaries, and some special classes of binaries such as cataclysmic variables, RS CVn binaries, Algol-type binaries, and X-ray binaries.

ASTR 548 - (3) (O)
Evolution of the Universe
Prerequisite: Instructor permission.
Studies the origin and evolution of structure in the universe. Topics include the formation and evolution of galaxies, and tests of the theory based on observations of large-scale structure and the properties of galaxies as a function of look-back time.

ASTR 551 - (3) (O)
Galactic Structure and Stellar Populations
Prerequisite: Permission of instructor.
This course explores the structure and evolution of star clusters and galaxies, with particular emphasis on objects in the local universe. Topics explored include the evolution of individual stars and their kinematics, chemistry, and spectral energy distributions, the effects of such evolution on populations of stars with both simple and complex star formation histories, and galaxies as collections of stellar populations. The course introduces fundamental tools of galactic astronomy, with topics including methods for assessing the size, shape, age, and dynamics of the Milky Way and other stellar systems, galaxy formation, interstellar gas and dust, dark matter, and the distance scale.

ASTR 553 - (3) (O)
Extragalactic Astronomy
Prerequisite: Physics and Math through PHYS 251, MATH 325 (or equivalent); ASTR 211, 212 (or equivalent).
This course provides an overview of extragalactic astronomy. Topics include both qualitative and quantitative discussion of various types of galaxy (ellipticals, spirals, dwarf, starburst); results from theory of stellar dynamics; groups and clusters of galaxies; active galaxies; high-redshirt galaxies; galaxy evolution; the intergalactic medium; and dark matter. The course is intended for advanced undergraduate astrophysics majors and first and second year graduate students.

ASTR 571, 572 - (3) (S)
Fundamental Concepts in Astronomy
Prerequisite: Curry School students; instructor permission.
Subject matter is the same as ASTR 121, 124, with special reading assignments and consultation on topics in astronomical education. Offered concurrently with undergraduate section.

ASTR 573 - (3) (S)
Laboratory Concepts in Astronomy
Prerequisite: Curry School students; instructor permission.
Subject matter is the same as ASTR 130, with special reading assignments and consultation on topics in astronomical education. Offered concurrently with undergraduate section.

ASTR 575, 576, 577, 578 - (3) (S)
General Topics in Astronomy
Prerequisite: Curry School students; instructor permission.
The subject matter of these courses is the same as ASTR 341, 342, 347, 348, respectively. Students are offered special reading assignments and consultation on topics in astronomical education. Offered concurrently with undergraduate section.

Undergraduate Record Home  |  College of Arts & Sciences