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Department of Astrophysical Sciences


David N. Spergel

Associate Chair

Michael A. Strauss

Departmental Representative

Neta A. Bahcall

Director of Graduate Studies

Gillian R. Knapp



Neta A. Bahcall

Adam S. Burrows

Christopher F. Chyba, also Woodrow Wilson School

Bruce T. Draine

Jeremy Goodman

J. Richard Gott III

Gillian R. Knapp

Jeremiah P. Ostriker

David N. Spergel

James M. Stone, also Applied and Computational Mathematics

Michael A. Strauss

Edwin L. Turner

Visiting Professor

Christopher D. Impey, Stanley Kelley, Jr., Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching

Associate Professor

Anatoly Spitkovsky

Assistant Professor

Gáspár A. Bakos

Jenny E. Greene

Roman R. Rafikov

Visiting Lecturer

Michael D. Lemonick

Associated Faculty

N. Jeremy Kasdin, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Lyman A. Page Jr., Physics

Suzanne T. Staggs, Physics

Paul J. Steinhardt, Physics

Robert J. Vanderbei, Operations Research and Financial Engineering

Plasma Physics

Associate Chair

Nathaniel J. Fisch

Director of Graduate Studies

Nathaniel J. Fisch


Nathaniel J. Fisch

Robert J. Goldston

Stewart C. Prager

Lecturer with Rank of Professor

Samuel A. Cohen

Gregory W. Hammett 

Stephen C. Jardin 

John A. Krommes 

Richard P. Majeski

Cynthia K. Phillips

Hong Qin

Allan H. Reiman

William M. Tang

Roscoe B. White


Ilya I. Dodin

Philip C. Efthimion

Hantao Ji

Associated Faculty

Edgar Y. Choueiri, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Szymon Suckewer, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Information and Departmental Plan of Study

The Department of Astrophysical Sciences offers a comprehensive program for astrophysics majors with the flexibility to accommodate students with a broad range of interests. Many of our majors plan to continue in graduate school in astrophysics. For students with career goals in other areas such as science education, science policy, space exploration, as well as law, medicine, finance, and teaching, we offer a flexible choice of courses and research projects. The department covers all major fields in astrophysics--from planets, to black holes, stars, galaxies, quasars, dark matter, dark energy, and the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to today. The relatively small size of the department provides an informal and friendly setting for students. Full accessibility to all faculty members and to the excellent departmental facilities, including our on-campus and remote telescopes and sophisticated computer system, is provided.


Mathematics 201, 202 or equivalent, and Physics 205 or 207; Astrophysical Sciences 204 is strongly recommended.

Early Concentration

Students interested in early concentration in astrophysics should contact the departmental representative.

Program of Study

Every student majoring in astrophysical sciences will acquire the necessary training in astrophysics by taking at least three astrophysics courses at the 300 or 400 level. In addition to these courses, departmental students will take courses in the Department of Physics that provide basic training in mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetic theory, and other relevant topics.

Independent Work

Junior Year. In addition to the course work carried out during the junior year, each student carries out two junior independent research projects, one each semester. Each project is on a research topic of current interest, carried out under close supervision of a faculty adviser who is doing research in this area. The student will complete each term's independent work by submitting a written paper. The research projects can involve data analysis using astronomical data from our telescopes, including data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey--a unique three-dimensional map of the universe--and from national and international facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Similarly, theoretical and computational projects in astrophysics are available. The topics, to be selected jointly by the student and his/her adviser, can range from areas such as cosmology and the early universe, to galaxy formation, large-scale structure of the universe, quasars, black holes, stars, and planetary astrophysics. Interdisciplinary projects, including astronomy and education, science policy, planetary science, astrobiology, space science exploration, and more are possible.

Senior Year. In the senior year, in addition to course work, students carry out an extensive research project with a faculty adviser for their senior thesis. The thesis is completed by submitting the final written paper summarizing the work. There is a wide range of observational and theoretical topics available, including interdisciplinary projects as discussed above. The senior thesis work is frequently published as part of a scientific paper in an astrophysical journal. After the thesis has been completed and read by the adviser and an additional faculty member, the student presents an oral summary of the work, followed by an oral defense of the thesis.

Senior Departmental Examination

The thesis work and the oral defense, combined with an oral examination on general topics in astrophysics, compose the senior departmental examination.

Preparation for Graduate Study

The undergraduate program in the department provides an excellent preparation for graduate study in astrophysics, with concentrators frequently accepted at the top graduate schools in the country. 

Additional Courses: See Course Offerings, especially for courses currently offered on a one-time-only basis, including AST 105 The Living Cosmos (fall 2011), and AST 201 Mapping the Universe (every other fall). 


AST 203 The Universe   Spring QR

This specially designed course targets the frontier of modern astrophysics. Subjects include the planets of our solar system, the birth, life, and death of stars; the search for extrasolar planets and extraterrestrial life; the zoo of galaxies from dwarfs to giants, from starbursts to quasars; dark matter and the large-scale structure of the universe; Einstein's special and general theory of relativity, black holes, neutron stars, and big bang cosmology. This course is designed for the non-science major and has no prerequisites past high school algebra and geometry. High school physics would be useful. A. Spitkovsky, C. Chyba, J. Greene

AST 204 Topics in Modern Astronomy   Spring STN

The solar system; the birth and evolution of the stars; supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes; the evolution of the chemical elements; the formation, structure, and evolution of galaxies; cosmology and the evolution of the universe; and life in the universe. Prerequisites: PHY 103 or 105 and MAT 103 or 104 or equivalent. Intended for students in the sciences. R. Rafikov

AST 207 A Guided Tour of the Solar System (see GEO 207)

AST 255 Life in the Universe (see GEO 255)

AST 301 General Relativity (also PHY 321)   Fall

This is an introductory course in general relativity for undergraduates. Topics include the early universe, black holes, cosmic strings, worm holes, and time travel. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: MAT 201, 202; PHY 203, 208. Designed for science and engineering majors. J. Gott

AST 303 Modeling and Observing the Universe: Research Methods in Astrophysics   Not offered this year

Introduces students to the techniques that astrophysicists use to model and observe the universe. The course will prepare students in research methods that will be used in their independent work in astrophysics. The techniques covered will be useful for students concentrating in any of the natural sciences. Topics include methods of observational astronomy, instruments and telescopes, statistical modeling of data, and numerical techniques. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: PHY 103-104, or PHY 105-106, and MAT 103-104, or permission of instructor. D. Spergel, M. Strauss

AST 309 Science and Technology of Nuclear Energy: Fission and Fusion (also MAE 309/PHY 309)   Spring

Concern about climate change and improved operation of nuclear fission power plants are creating the potential for a 'renaissance' of nuclear fission power. The recent international agreement to construct a major fusion energy experiment ITER to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion is increasing interest in the practical application of fusion power. This course introduces the history, science, technology, and economics of both fission and fusion, with special emphasis on both societal risks, such as nuclear weapons proliferation, and societal benefits, such as reduced CO2 emissions. Two 90-minute lectures. R. Goldston

AST 374 Planetary Systems: Their Diversity and Evolution (see GEO 374)

AST 401 Cosmology (also PHY 401)   Spring

Topics include the properties and nature of galaxies, quasars, active galactic nuclei, galaxy clustering, large-scale properties of the universe, formation of galaxies and other structures, microwave background radiation, the big bang, and the early universe. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: MAT 201, 202; PHY 203, 208. Designed for science and engineering majors. N. Bahcall, D. Spergel

AST 403 Stars and Star Formation (also PHY 402)   Not offered this year

Stars form by the gravitational collapse of interstellar gas clouds, and as they evolve, stars return some of their gas to the interstellar medium, altering its physical state and chemical composition. This course discusses the properties and evolution of the gaseous and stellar components of a galaxy; the theory and observations of star formation; stellar structure; energy production by nucleosynthesis; stellar evolution; stellar end states; and the physics of the diffuse and dense interstellar medium. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: MAT 202; PHY 203 or 207, 208. Staff