The 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 theoretical astrophysics.

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.

Davey Lab

Davey 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 physics.

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.

Science 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.

Left: CHANDRA in final assembly Center: The Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) Right: The Arecibo Observatory
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 investigations:
  • They can participate in the design, fabrication, and testing of state-of-the-art instruments for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (Professor Larry Ramsey).
  • 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 Schneider).
  • 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 Steinn Sigurdsson).
  • 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 Garmire).
  • 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 Richard Wade).
  • 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 Sigurdsson).
  • 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 Richards).


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 missions.

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.

Left: 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.
Right: Former graduate student Zhiyu Guo in front of the NRAO 140-ft telescope at Green Bank, WV.












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