Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is a part of Penn State's
Eberly College of Science. It is one of the nation's leading research
departments, with major programs in space-based, ground-based, and
The department is located on the fourth and fifth
floors of Davey Lab, a modern building located at the heart of Penn
State's University Park campus. Adjacent to Davey Lab is Osmond Lab,
which houses the Penn State physics department; just across the street
is the university's post office and student union. In addition, Davey
Lab is only a few minutes walk away from Pattee Library, the
University's central library, and College Avenue, the main commercial
street of State College.
Lab is capped by 3 telescopes, which are used for undergraduate
instruction and weekly open houses for the public. The fourth and fifth
floors of Davey are devoted entirely to the Department of Astronomy
& Astrophysics. These floors contain instrument development labs, a
machine shop, a planetarium, and several class and conference rooms,
which are used for research, instruction, and public outreach. The
second floor of Davey Lab is home to the Penn State Physical and
Mathematical Sciences Library, which contains the university's complete
collection of books and periodicals on astronomy, physics, chemistry,
mathematics and statistics. The remainder of the building is devoted to
The essential feature of the
Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is the wide range of frontier
research projects conducted by its faculty. Undergraduate and graduate
students alike participate in this research, and, with their mentors,
make discoveries and publish results in the top research scientific
journals of the world. The resources available for this research are
impressive. Penn State designed and has a 31% share in the Hobby-Eberly
Telescope, one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. For
high-energy astrophysics, Penn State astronomers have guaranteed time
on Chandra, NASA's new X-ray telescope that is more than an order of
magnitude more sensitive to fine detail than any other past or planned
mission. At even higher energies there is SWIFT, a new NASA mission to
study the highest energy explosions in the universe. Penn State
astronomers built the X-ray and UV/optical telescopes of this satellite
and the university is home to the mission's operation center. Radio
astronomers can use the Penn State Pulsar Machines at Arecibo (Puerto
Rico) and Torun (Poland), which are the best instruments in the world
to find and measure fast millisecond pulsars. And, if the physics of
the universe interests you, there is the Institute for Gravitational
Physics and Geometry and the Center for Gravitational Wave Physics.
Both are inter-departmental research groups established to promote
investigations into General Relativity, astrophysics, and cosmology.
Supporting this research is an excellent computing environment.
Two full-time system
administrators maintain a wide assortment of computers, which range
from Macintoshes and PCs, to a large and ever expanding network of Sun,
SGI, DEC, and Linux workstations. All faculty, and graduate students
have workstations on their desks; this desk-top access is then
supplemented by an Image Processing Laboratory, where students can work
with faculty to explore the data collected by various ground- and
spaced-based observing platforms. If these resources are not
sufficient, then a central IBM multiprocessor mainframe with vector
facilities is available through the University's Center for Academic
Computing. In addition, for the most CPU intensive calculations, the
department can use the resources of four of the five national
supercomputer centers, which have been established by the National
Science Foundation. The University is formally affiliated with these
centers, and provides access, training, and consulting services for
local users who wish to use vector and massively parallel machines.
Because astronomical data sets tend to be rather large, the
department maintains an array of high-capacity storage devices,
including Exabyte, DAT, and DLT tapes, WORM and CDROM optical disks.
All machines are interconnected via Ethernet and are also tied directly
to the Internet/INS Fact research network. This provides unlimited
access to the global information services. And, of course, the
department supports all of the most widely used astronomy software
packages, including IRAF, AIPS, PROS, XSPEC, STSDAS, and IDL. We are
also an official node of NASA's ADS (Astronomical Data Service), which
gives us access to virtually all of NASA's electronic databases.
cannot be performed in a vacuum, and, to increase interaction with the
astronomical community, the department has an active visitor program in
which internationally renowned scientists are brought to Penn State to
give lectures and share their knowledge of astronomy. These visits can
last anywhere from days to weeks; some even stay for years to do
research with our faculty and students. In addition, an endowed series
of annual lectures, the Russell Marker Lectures, brings in
astrophysicists like John Bahcall (Institute for Advanced Study,
Princeton), Sir Martin Rees (Cambridge), Malcolm Longair (formerly
Astronomer Royal for Scotland), and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Taylor
(Princeton) to Penn State for a week each year.
Recent Penn State Ph.D. Sally Hunsberger obtained this image at the 60-inch
telescope at Palomar Observatory. Four of the galaxies are members of
Hickson compact group 92, and the other galaxy is in the foreground.
The small star-forming clumps in the tidal debris drawn out by the
interactions are candidates for newly formed dwarf galaxies.
Penn State is a member of AURA, the Association of Universities for
Research in Astronomy. This is the organization that manages Kitt Peak
National Observatory, Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory,
Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory, the Gemini 8-m Telescopes, and the
Space Telescope Science Institute. In addition, Penn State is a NASA
national Space Grant College, combining its outstanding science and
technology programs. Moreover, Penn State consistently ranks among the
nation's leading research universities, with total research
expenditures exceeding $350 million per year, and ranks first among the
nation's public universities in research supported by industry. The
level of research funding for the Department of Astronomy and
Astrophysics was $3 million last year. Most of the department's funding
comes from NASA or the NSF, although additional funds come from private
and corporate donations.
The Astronomy and Astrophysics staff of Penn State conduct research
covering the entire electro-magnetic spectrum -- from gamma ray
astrophysics to radio astronomy. Entering graduate students in
Astronomy and Astrophysics have remarkable research opportunities in
instrument development, data collection, data analysis and theoretical
CHANDRA in final assembly Center:
The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) Right:
The Arecibo Observatory
- They can participate in the design, fabrication, and testing of
state-of-the-art instruments for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (Professor
- They can build and test X-ray instrumentation for sounding rockets
and future satellite missions such as Constellation-X (Professors
Gordon Garmire, John Nousek, and David Burrows).
- They can investigate the origin of the still mysterious gamma-ray
bursts using SWIFT, the NASA mission scheduled for launch in the fall
of 2004. This satellite will detect on average 1 gamma-ray burst per
day, allowing investigations into the physics of these sources and the
conditions that existed in the early universe (Professors John Nousek,
David Burrows, Gordon Garmire, Peter Mészáros, Niel Brandt, and Don
- They can participate in the search for planets around pulsars,
millisecond and binary pulsars, and general relativistic phenomenology
using large radio telescopes located in Aricebo, Puerto Rico, and
Torun, Poland (Professor Alex Wolszczan).
- They can participate in front-line research on theories of
gamma-ray and X-ray sources, including gamma-ray bursters (Professor
Peter Mészáros), active galactic nuclei and quasars (Professor Peter
Mészáros), accreting isolated neutron stars and pulsars (Professors
Peter Mészáros and George Pavlov), and accretion disks around white
dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes (Professors Richard Wade,
Michael Eracleous, and Niel Brandt).
- They can participate in a wide array of frontier explorations in
observational cosmology. Among these programs are searches for the most
distant quasars and measurements of first-generation objects (Professor
Donald Schneider), multi-wavelength observations to determine the
nature of the central engines of active galaxies and quasars
(Professors Niel Brandt and Michael Eracleous), measurements of the
chemical evolution of galaxies (Professor Robin Ciardullo),
investigations of galaxy mergers and interactions (Professor Jane
Charlton), determination of the dark matter content, stellar
population, and kinematic structure of elliptical galaxies (Professor
Robin Ciardullo), studies of the evolution of galaxies and gaseous
structures through quasar absorption line observations (Professor Jane
Charlton), and investigations into the evolutionary state of galaxy
clusters via the distribution and kinematics of their intergalactic
stars (Professor Robin Ciardullo), and the determination of the
star-formation history of the universe (Dr. Caryl Gronwall).
- They can acquire experience in current problems of theoretical
cosmology, including topics such as: the physics of high redshift
quasar absorption-line clouds and galaxy formation (Professor Jane
Charlton), the implications for cosmology of the diffuse X-ray and
gamma-ray radiation backgrounds (Professor Peter Mészáros), the
properties of 3K microwave background with regard to large-scale
structure theories (Professors Pablo Laguna and Peter Mészáros); and
the formation of dwarf galaxies in the tidal debris of galaxy mergers
(Professor Jane Charlton).
- They can join in major numerical modeling projects on the dynamics
of space-time during black hole-black hole collisions, the physics of
the tidal disruptions of stars by black holes, and the dynamics of the
early universe during and after inflation (Professors Pablo Laguna and
- They can discover supermassive black holes in the centers of
galaxies through their dynamical effects on the gas and stars around
them or consider the observational signatures of the mergers of central
black holes when two galaxies collide (Professor Steinn Sigurdsson).
- They can study the hot plasma of supernova remnants and the
structure of the interstellar medium using multiwavelength observations
from world-class telescopes including the CHANDRA X-ray satellite, the
Green Bank Radio Telescope (GBT), and the Hobby-Eberly optical
Telescope (HET) (Professors David Burrows, John Nousek, and Gordon
- They can work on the many Guaranteed Time Observations obtained
with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, including the Galactic Center, star
formation regions, pulsars and supernova remnants, starburst galaxies,
and quasar lenses (Professors Gordon Garmire, Eric Feigelson, George
Pavlov, and George Chartas).
- They can develop physically accurate three dimensional models of
the formation of stars and massive black holes, determine their impact
on the surrounding media, and compare these models to observations
(Professors Don Schneider, Eric Feigelson, and Niel Brandt).
- They can take part in the modeling of relativistic flows, shocks,
and radiation processes in blast waves associated with quasars,
gamma-ray sources, and supernova-like events (Professors Peter
Mészáros, Pablo Laguna, and Tom Abel).
- They can learn how to model non-relativistic gas flows, shocks, and
radiation processes in interacting binary star systems in which gas
flows from a magnetically-active cool star to a non-degenerate main
sequence star (Professor Mercedes Richards).
- They can analyze data from a wide variety of world-class space
platforms, including optical and UV images and spectra from the Hubble
Space Telescope (Professors Niel Brandt, Jane Charlton, Robin
Ciardullo, Michael Eracleous, George Pavlov, Donald Schneider, Steinn
Sigurdsson, Richard Wade, and Caryl Gronwall), X-ray images and spectra
taken with ROSAT, ASCA, XMM-Newton, and Chandra
(Professors Niel Brandt, Michael Eracleous, George Pavlov, David
Burrows, Eric Feigelson, Gordon Garmire, and John Nousek), and X-ray
timing and spectroscopic data from RXTE (Professors Niel Brandt and Michael Eracleous).
- They can participate in observations of cool stars,
magnetically-active stars, cataclysmic variables, and planetary nebulae
using a wide array of space-based and ground-based telescopes,
including those of Kitt Peak National Observatory, Cerro Tololo
InterAmerican Observatory, and McDonald Observatory (Professors Robin
Ciardullo, Michael Eracleous, Lawrence Ramsey, Mercedes Richards, and
- They can develop advanced statistical methodologies for
observational astronomy, and apply them to emerging National Virtual
Observatory datasets (Professor Eric Feigelson with Professors Babu and
Akritas in Statistics).
- They can get involved in observational and/or theoretical studies
of accretion powered systems, such as interacting binary stars or
accreting supermassive black holes in the centers of active galaxies
and quasars. Specifically, they can study the observational signatures,
properties, and temporal behavior of accretion disks and other
accretion flows (Professors Niel Brandt, Michael Eracleous, Pablo
Laguna, Mercedes Richards, Steinn Sigurdsson. and Richard Wade).
- They can study high energy processes (X-ray emission, radio
synchrotron) from young stars and their implications for the
astrophysics of star formation and evolution of protoplanetary disks
(Professor Eric Feigelson).
- They can study radio flares from cool stars like our sun to
determine the physical processes that produce flares, and study their
long-term cyclic behavior (Professor Mercedes Richards).
- They can participate in the "Chandra Deep Field" project
and determine the nature of the extragalactic X-ray background
(Professors Niel Brandt and Donald Schneider).
- They can learn how to simulate the origin of cosmic structures and
extend the theory of galaxy formation and evolution (Professor Steinn
- They can learn about the technique of tomography, its application
to the study of gas flows in interacting binary star systems, and how
multiwavelength spectra are used to make images of binaries that cannot
be resolved by the world's largest telescopes (Professor Mercedes
Our Graduate students have been very successful in finding
employment; some become researchers or faculty at major academic
institutions, others work in computational environments associated with
space missions, and still others become assistant professors at
teaching colleges. Our undergraduate majors usually go on to graduate
school and eventually become outstanding scientists, teachers, and
instrument or software developers for the nation's space astronomy
Students are represented on the department's committees and thus can
help shape new initiatives. They also engage in many social activities,
which further helps to create an informal atmosphere. The students have
high praise for their close interaction with faculty, and the "small
yet far-reaching" nature of the department.
Former graduate student Jason Harlow played a major role in constructing the Upgraded Fiber Optic
Echelle (UFOE), a commissioning spectrograph for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Jason's research interests focus on brown dwarfs, the
coolest stars in the universe.
Former graduate student Zhiyu Guo in front of the NRAO 140-ft telescope at Green Bank, WV.