Astrophysical Sciences

Program Offerings

Offering type

The Department of Astrophysical Sciences offers an outstanding 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 allows for an informal, flexible and friendly setting. The department is known for providing strong and supportive mentorship to all students, for cutting-edge independent research done by students for their JPs and theses, as well as for its warm and amiable atmosphere. Full access to all faculty members and to the excellent departmental facilities, including our on-campus and remote telescopes and sophisticated computer system, is provided.

Goals for Student Learning

The main goal of our program is for our students to become successful scientists, researchers, science educators, or to pursue other areas of interest in science such as science policy, space exploration, data science, hi-tech and more. To achieve this broad goal, we expect our students to learn and master advanced-level courses in astrophysics, physics and math, and to become proficient with computational methods and statistical analysis. We expect our students to learn to conduct cutting-edge research in astrophysics using the scientific method and by employing observational, theoretical or computational analyses. This comprehensive training will enable students to successfully pursue their future careers — in science, education, science policy, data science or any other direction that requires quantitative thinking and problem solving.  

Advanced Placement

Advanced placement in physics or math requirements will be granted as recommended by the relevant physics or math department. For advanced placement in astrophysics courses, please consult with the director of undergraduate studies in astrophysics. 


Mathematics 103, 104, 201, 202 or equivalent; Physics 103/105, 104/106, 207; and Astrophysical Sciences 204.

Program of Study

Every student majoring in astrophysical sciences will acquire the necessary training in astrophysics by taking at least eight upper-level science/math courses, including the following:

At least three astrophysics courses at the 300–400 level, selected from:

  • Stars and Star Formation (AST 403)
  • Cosmology (AST 401) 
  • General Relativity (AST 301)
  • Research Methods in Astrophysics (AST 303)
  • The Science of Nuclear Energy (AST 309)

At least three physics courses selected from:

  • Principles of Quantum Mechanics (PHY 208)
  • Thermal Physics (PHY 301)
  • Advanced Dynamics (PHY 303)
  • Advanced Electrodynamics (PHY 304)
  • Quantum Mechanics (PHY 305)

Students also complete two additional science, math, computer science or engineering courses. 

Departmental Tracks

There are no tracks in the astrophysics program, but individual plans for courses and independent research projects can be made by consulting with the director of undergraduate studies. 

Independent Work

Junior Year. In addition to the coursework completed during junior year, each student carries out two junior independent research projects, one each semester. Each project examines 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 the Hyper Suprime-Cam Survey with the Subaru telescope, as well as data from other 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 their adviser, can range from areas such as cosmology and the early universe, to galaxy formation, to large-scale structure of the universe, quasars, black holes, stars, extra-solar planets, high-energy astrophysics and plasma astrophysics. Interdisciplinary projects, including astronomy and education, science policy, planetary science, astrobiology, space science exploration and more are possible.

Senior Year. In senior year, in addition to coursework, students must carry out an extensive research project with a faculty adviser for their senior thesis. The thesis is completed by submitting a 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 a brief oral examination on general topics in astrophysics, constitute the senior departmental examination.

Preparation for Graduate Study

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

Additional Courses: See Course Offerings, especially for courses offered on a one-time-only basis.


  • Chair

    • Michael A. Strauss
  • Associate Chair

    • Joshua N. Winn (acting)
  • Director of Undergraduate Studies

    • Neta A. Bahcall
  • Director of Graduate Studies

    • Joshua N. Winn
  • Professor

    • Neta A. Bahcall
    • Gáspár Áron Bakos
    • Amitava Bhattacharjee
    • Adam S. Burrows
    • Christopher F. Chyba
    • Steven C. Cowley
    • Bruce T. Draine
    • Jo Dunkley
    • Nathaniel J. Fisch
    • Robert J. Goldston
    • John J. Goodman
    • Jenny E. Greene
    • Hantao Ji
    • David J. McComas
    • Eve C. Ostriker
    • Felix I. Parra Diaz
    • Eliot Quataert
    • Anatoly Spitkovsky
    • Michael A. Strauss
    • Romain Teyssier
    • Joshua N. Winn
  • Associate Professor

    • Matthew W. Kunz
  • Assistant Professor

    • Alexandra Amon
    • Peter M. Melchior
  • Associated Faculty

    • Mariangela Lisanti, Physics
    • Lyman A. Page, Physics
    • Frans Pretorius, Physics
    • Suzanne T. Staggs, Physics
    • Paul J. Steinhardt, Physics
    • Robert J. Vanderbei, Oper Res and Financial Eng
  • Lecturer with Rank of Professor

    • Samuel A. Cohen
    • Ilya Y. Dodin
    • Gregory W. Hammett
    • Richard P. Majeski
    • Hong Qin
    • Allan H. Reiman
    • William M. Tang
  • Lecturer

    • Philip C. Efthimion
    • William R. Fox
    • Yevgeny Raitses
    • Jamie S. Rankin
  • Visiting Lecturer with Rank of Professor

    • Matias Zaldarriaga
  • Visiting Lecturer

    • Michael D. Lemonick

For a full list of faculty members and fellows please visit the department or program website.


AST 203 - The Universe Spring QRSN

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. M. Strauss, A. Spitkovsky

AST 204 - Topics in Modern Astronomy Spring QRSN

The solar system and planets around other stars; the structure and evolution of stars; supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes; gravitational waves; the formation and structure of galaxies; cosmology, dark matter, dark energy, and the history of the entire universe. Prerequisites: PHY 103 or 105 and MAT 103 or 104 or equivalent. Compared to AST 203, this course employs more mathematics and physics. Intended for quantitatively-oriented students. J. Winn

AST 205 - Planets in the Universe Fall QRSN

This is an introductory course in astronomy focusing on planets in our Solar System, and around other stars (exoplanets). The course starts with reviewing the formation, evolution and characterization of the Solar system. Following an introduction to stars, the course will then discuss the exciting new field of exoplanets; discovery methods, basic properties, earth-like planets, and extraterrestrial life. Core values of the course are quantitative analysis and hands-on experience, including telescopic observations. This SEN course is designed for the non-science major and has no prerequisites past high school algebra and geometry. G. Bakos

AST 255 - Life in the Universe (also CHM 255/GEO 255) Fall QRSN

This course introduces students to a new field, Astrobiology, where scientists trained in biology, chemistry, astrophysics and geology combine their skills to investigate life's origins and to seek extraterrestrial life. Topics include: the origin of life on earth, the prospects of life on Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladues and extra-solar planets, as well as the cosmological setting for life and the prospects for SETI. AST 255 is the core course for the planets and life certificate. C. Chyba

AST 301 - General Relativity (also PHY 321) Fall SEN

This is an introductory course in general relativity for undergraduates. Topics include the early universe, black holes, cosmic strings, worm holes, and time travel. Designed for science and engineering majors. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: MAT 201 and 202, OR MAT 203 and 204. Also PHY 205 or 207. PHY 304 is recommended. J. Goodman

AST 303 - Deciphering the Universe: Research Methods in Astrophysics Not offered this year QRSN

How do we observe and model the universe? We discuss the wide range of observational tools available to the modern astronomer: from space-based gamma-ray telescopes, to globe-spanning radio interferometers, to optical telescopes and particle detectors. We review basic statistics, introduce techniques used to interpret modern data sets containing millions of galaxies and stars, and describe numerical methods used to model these data. The course is problem-set-based and focused on tools needed for independent research in astrophysics. PHY103/104 or 105/106, and MAT103/104 required. AST204 and programming experience are helpful but not required. P. Melchior, M. Kunz

AST 309 - The Science of Fission and Fusion Energy (also ENE 309/MAE 309/PHY 309) Spring SEN

We develop the scientific ideas behind fission and fusion energy. For fission we move from elementary nuclear physics to calculations of chain reactions, understanding how both reactors and nuclear weapons work. We examine safety and waste concerns, as well as nuclear proliferation. We look at new reactor concepts. For fusion we address the physics of confining hot, ionized gases, called plasmas. We address the control of large-scale instabilities and small-scale turbulence. We examine progress and prospects, as well as challenges, for the development of economically attractive fusion power. R. Goldston

AST 374 - Planetary Systems: Their Diversity and Evolution (also GEO 374) Not offered this year SEN

AST 401 - Cosmology (also PHY 401) Spring QRSN

Topics include the properties and nature of galaxies, quasars, clusters, superclusters, the large-scale structure of the universe, dark matter, dark energy, the formation and evolution of galaxies and other structures, microwave background radiation, and the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to today. Two 90-minute lectures. Prerequisites: MAT 201, 202; PHY 207, 208. Designed for science and engineering majors. N. Bahcall

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

Stars form from the interstellar medium (ISM), and the nuclear fusion that powers stars is also the main energy source in the ISM. This course discusses the structure and evolution of the ISM and stars. Topics include: physical properties and methods for studying ionized, atomic, and molecular gas in the ISM; dynamics of magnetized gas flows and turbulence; gravitational collapse and star formation; structure of stellar interiors; radiation transport; production of energy by nucleosynthesis; stellar evolution and end states; effects of stars on interstellar environment. Prerequisites: MAT 201, 202; PHY 208, 301 or permission of instructor. E. Ostriker