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 fifteen 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 operates an advanced astronomical instrumentation laboratory that provides training in instrument design and fabrication while developing advanced instrumentation for current and future telescopes. The department offers outstanding computing and image-processing facilities based on a network of Sun Microsystems UNIX workstations and a 24-node Beowulf cluster. 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.