6: College of Arts and Sciences

General Information | Academic Information | Departments and Programs | Faculty

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Department of Astronomy

Course Descriptions | Faculty

Overview   Although the study of astronomy has ancient roots, it is now one of the most rapidly developing and exciting subjects in modern science. The area of study is 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 discoveries, including in recent years the discovery of planets orbiting other stars, the comet crash onto Jupiter, the discovery of very young galaxies in the distant universe, and the detection of primeval ripples in the cosmic background radiation. Astronomy draws from, and contributes to, other subjects, primarily physics but also 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 on more specialized topics of current interest (e.g. cosmology). For students with more serious interests in the field, the department provides more intensive coverage of astronomy which fosters the development of fundamental analytical and quantitative skills useful in many different post-graduate careers. A total of twenty-five astronomy courses are open to undergraduates. 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 fourteen faculty members are committed to strong undergraduate teaching and to conducting astronomical 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, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Students   There are typically 15-25 students majoring in astronomy or astronomy-physics. Students therefore get to know each other well and often work together. 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 can be published in major research journals. Students can also work at the University's observatory or in summer research projects supported by grants. Advanced students may, with the permission of the instructor, enroll in graduate courses.

Most students who complete the astronomy-physics degree go on to 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. Our graduates are employed by universities, NASA, federal observatories and laboratories, planetariums, and aerospace and computer corporations, or have gone into professions such as 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. We have a wide variety of telescopes: 6-inch, 8-in, and 10-in aperture instruments are available on Grounds, some equipped with digital CCD cameras. At McCormick Observatory, located on Grounds on Mount Jefferson, there is the historic 26-inch Clark refractor. In addition to its regular use in our research programs to measure distances and motion of stars, the 26-inch is also the main instrument used in the ASTR 313 laboratory class. At Fan Mountain Observatory, located 15 miles south of Charlottesville on an isolated peak at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we have 40-inch and 30-inch reflecting telescopes, with CCD cameras and spectrographs, which are available to more advanced students.

We offer 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 Astro space shuttle missions, 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 an account on our computers and have 24 hour access to our 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. The student takes ASTR 121, 124 (or ASTR 211, 212), ASTR 313, ASTR 498 (Senior Thesis), and twelve additional credits of 300-500 level astronomy courses. The student is also required to take MATH 121, 122 (or MATH 131, 132); PHYS 231, 232 (or PHYS 151, 152, 251, 252); and CS 182 or 101. This program offers considerable opportunities for the student 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 a program offered jointly by the astronomy and physics departments. This major prepares the student for graduate study in astronomy, physics, computer science, and related fields. The student takes MATH 131, 132, 221, 225, 521, 522; CS 182 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.

Requirements for the Distinguished Astronomy-Physics Major   Students must maintain a GPA of 3.4 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 (PHYS 498). The six credits of elective astronomy courses must consist of PHYS 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 majors programs. Requirements for the minor can be completed in either of two ways. The student can take ASTR 121, 124, 130, and six additional credits of 300-400 level astronomy courses. Alternatively, the student can take 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., Charlottesville, VA 22903-0818; (804) 924-7494; Fax: (804) 924-3104; dept@astsun.astro.virginia.edu.

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