University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Majoring in Astronomy

Although the study of astronomy has ancient roots, it is now one of the most rapidly developing and exciting subjects in modern science. Astronomy is the study of 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. 

Recent advances in astronomy have derived from new technologies that have yielded instruments of unprecedented power: telescopes with 10-meter mirrors, orbiting satellite observatories for all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, deep space missions to sample planetary atmospheres and surfaces, and huge laboratories for detection of elusive cosmic neutrinos and gravity waves. 

The excitement and accessibility of astronomy are featured in frequent press coverage of major new discoveries, including in recent years the discovery of planets orbiting other stars, a comet crashing into Jupiter, the discovery of very young galaxies in the distant universe, the detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes, the possibility of life on Mars, the threat of asteroid collisions with the Earth, and the detection of primordial ripples in the cosmic background radiation. Astronomy draws from, and contributes to, many other subjects: primarily physics but also geology, atmospheric and environmental science, biology, and even philosophy. 

The two Astronomy majors programs offer students the opportunity to explore these frontier discoveries while simultaneously developing fundamental analytical and quantitative skills useful in many different careers. A total of thirty five Astronomy courses are open to majors. The BA 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 astronomy or physics. It is often part of a double major.  The BS Astronomy-Physics major provides more rigorous preparation for graduate work in astronomy, physics, computer science, or related fields.

Note: The information contained on this website is for informational purposes only.  The Undergraduate Record and Graduate Record represent the official repository for academic program requirements.


The University has the largest astronomy department in the Southeastern United States. The department‘s eighteen professors are committed to strong undergraduate teaching as well as to conducting astronomical research. As one of the top fifteen research departments in the country, faculty expertise spans a wide range of subjects from star clusters, to the evolution of our Galaxy, to black holes, to distant galaxies. Active faculty research programs keep classroom teaching up-to-date and are an integral part of tutorial and senior thesis projects. Faculty research is well supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other agencies.


There are typically 30-40 declared majors at any given time. Students get to know each other well and often work together. Close contact with the faculty is part of the learning environment. Many students work one-on-one with faculty in tutorials or senior theses, and this work can be published in major research journals and presented at national meetings. Students can also work at the Department’s observatories or on summer research projects supported by grants. Advanced students can enroll in graduate courses.

Most students who complete our Astronomy-Physics degree go on to 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. Our graduates are employed by universities, NASA, federal observatories and laboratories, planetariums, and aerospace and computer corporations, or have gone into professions such as medicine, law, the military, business, science writing, and science education.

Special Resources and Student Research 

The department is very well equipped to support its students. There is an excellent collection of journals, monographs, catalogs, and atlases in the Astronomy Library as well as in the library of the nearby National Radio Astronomy Observatory. We have a wide variety of telescopes available on the Grounds: 6-inch, 8-inch, and 10-inch aperture instruments as well as the historic 26-inch Clark refractor at Leander McCormick Observatory. At Fan Mountain Observatory, our local research observatory, located 15 miles south of Charlottesville, we have 40-inch and 31-inch reflecting telescopes. All of these are equipped with digital CCD cameras, spectrographs, and other specialized instruments.

We offer excellent computing facilities to our students, based on a network of Linux workstations, all of which run sophisticated data analysis, numerical simulation, image processing, and display software.

As soon as a student declares the major, he or she is assigned an account on our computers and has 24 hour access to our library and other facilities.

One of the important features of the majors programs is the opportunity to participate in ASTR 4993 tutorials, in which the student studies some area of particular interest to him/her under the individual guidance of a faculty member. Any subject in the area of competence of the faculty can be examined in depth. These tutorials are distinct from ASTR 4998 (Senior Thesis), although we expect that many students may choose to do thesis research on a problem growing out of a tutorial. ASTR 4993 may be repeated once for credit.

As part of tutorials and thesis research, our students regularly work on observations obtained by faculty at leading worldwide facilities, including 4 to 10-m class optical telescopes, the Very Large Array, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and the 2MASS infrared all-sky survey. Students can also participate with faculty and staff in projects using national supercomputing facilities for theoretical computational simulations. The headquarters of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the North American ALMA Science Center are located on Grounds, and students can be supervised by NRAO scientists or engineers.

Course titles in Astronomy

Course No. Titles Credit Hours Times Offered* Semester
ASTR 1210 Introduction to the Sky and the Solar System 3 S  
ASTR 1220 Introduction to Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe       3 S  
ASTR 1230 Introduction to Astronomical Observation 3 S  
ASTR 1260 Threats from Outer Space 3 Y  
ASTR 1270 Unsolved Mysteries in the Universe 3 Y Spring
ASTR 1280 The Origins of (Almost) Everything 3 Y Spring
ASTR 1290 Black Holes 3 Y Fall
ASTR 1610 Introduction to Astronomical Research 1 Y Spring
ASTR 2110       Introduction to Astrophysics I 3 Y Fall
ASTR 2120       Introduction to Astrophysics II 3 Y Spring
ASTR 3130 Observational Astronomy 4 Y Spring
ASTR 3140 Introduction to Observational Radio Astronomy 4 Y Spring
ASTR 3410 Archaeo-Astronomy 3 Y Fall
ASTR 3420 Life Beyond the Earth 3 Y Spring
ASTR 3460
Development of Modern Astronomy
3 IR  
ASTR 3470 Science and Controversy in Astronomy 3 Y Fall
ASTR 3480 Introduction to Cosmology 3 Y Spring
ASTR 3880 Planetary Astronomy 3 Y Spring
ASTR 3881 Planetary Astronomy Laboratory 3 Y Spring
ASTR 4140
Research Methods in Astrophysics
3 Y Spring
ASTR 4810 Astrophysics 3 Y Fall
ASTR 4993 Tutorial 3 S  
ASTR 4998 Senior Thesis 3 S  
ASTR 5010 Astrophysical Processes 3 O Fall
ASTR 5110 Astronomical Techniques 3 O Fall
ASTR 5260 Astrochemistry 3 Y Fall
ASTR 5340 Introductory Radio Astronomy 3 E Fall
ASTR 5350 Radio Astronomy Instrumentation 3 SI Spring
ASTR 5420 The Interstellar Medium 3 E Spring
ASTR 5430 Stellar Astrophysics 3 O Fall
ASTR 5440 Stellar Astrophysics II 3 IR Spring
ASTR 5450 High Energy Astrophysics 3 E Fall
ASTR 5460 Binary Stars 3 SI  
ASTR 5480 Evolution of the Universe 3 O Spring
ASTR 5500, 5510   Topical Seminar 3 IR  
ASTR 5610 Galactic Structure and Stellar Populations 3 E Spring
ASTR 5630 Extragalactic Astronomy I 3 O Spring
ASTR 5640 Extragalactic Astronomy II 3 IR Fall


S - every semester (Fall, Spring)
Y - every year (one semester)
O - every other year with Fall semester in odd year
E - every other year with Fall semester in even year
SI - offered upon sufficient student interest
IR - offered irregularly

Requirements for the Astronomy Major 

The Bachelor of Arts degree in Astronomy, not intended as preparation for graduate study in science, provides a firm grounding in basic astronomy, mathematics, physics, and computer science. A listing of course requirements is given below. A senior thesis is required.

This program offers considerable latitude for the student to pursue interests in other subjects and is well suited for inclusion in a double major.

Arts & Sciences Area Requirements:

Lower division courses:

  • ASTR 1210, 1220 or ASTR 2110, 2120 (ASTR 1610 recommended but not required)
  • PHYS 1425, 2415, or PHYS 1710, 1720, 2620
  • MATH 1210, 1220 or MATH 1310, 1320 (the introductory calculus sequences)
  • PHYS 2660 (Fundamentals of Scientific Computing) or CS 1110

Upper division courses:

  • Third year: ASTR 3130 and any two other 3000-5000 level Astronomy courses (ASTR 4993 recommended)
  • Fourth year: ASTR 4998 and any two other 3000-5000 level Astronomy courses (ASTR 4810 recommended)

Courses recommended for students with a stronger interest in mathematics and/or physics:

  • MATH 2310: Calculus III (highly recommended)
  • MATH 3255: Differential Equations
  • PHYS 2630, 2640: Physics Laboratory
  • PHYS 3210: Classical Mechanics

Requirements for the Astronomy-Physics Major 

The Bachelor of Science degree in Astronomy-Physics is a program offered jointly by the Astronomy and Physics Departments. This major prepares the student for graduate study in astronomy, physics, computer science, and related fields. The curriculum is listed in the tabulation below. A senior thesis is required.

Prospective Astronomy-Physics Majors are strongly urged to consult with the Astronomy Pre-Majors Advisor during registration week of their first semester at the University.

Required Courses for the Astronomy-Physics Major:

Arts & Sciences Area Requirements:

Astronomy courses:

  • ASTR 2110, 2120  Introduction to Astrophysics
  • ASTR 3130 Observational Astronomy
  • ASTR 4993 Tutorial
  • ASTR 4998 Senior Thesis
  • Two ASTR 3xxx-5xxx electives
  • (ASTR 1610 recommended but not required)

Physics Courses:

  • PHYS 1710, 1720, 2620 (majors intro sequence)
  • PHYS 2630, 2640 (labs)
  • PHYS 3210, 3310, 3420, 3430, 3650

Computing Course:

  • PHYS 2660 (C programming) or CS 1110 (Python programming)

Mathmatics Courses:

  • MATH 1320, 2310, 3250 or 3255, 4210, 4220

A typical schedule for taking these courses is shown below.  This includes some of the College area requirements, but these are not required for the major.


Year Fall Semester Hours         Spring Semester Hours
FIRST   ENWR 1510 (if required)  3 ASTR 1610¹ 1
  MATH 1320 Calc. II  4 MATH 2310 Calc. III  4
  PHYS 1710 Intro. Phys. I  5 PHYS 1720 Intro. Phys. II  5
  LANGUAGE 1010  4 LANGUAGE 1020  4
      ELECTIVE  3
    16   17
SECOND     ASTR 2110 Introduction to Astrophysics I  3 ASTR 2120 Introduction to Astrophysics II  3
  MATH 3255 ODEs  4 MATH 4210 Adv. Calc.  4
  PHYS 2620 Modern Physics  4 PHYS 3210 Mechanics  3
  PHYS 2630 Lab. I  3 PHYS 2640 Lab. II  3
  LANGUAGE 2010  3 LANGUAGE 2020  3
    17   16
THIRD   ASTR 4993 Tutorial  3 ASTR 3130 Observational Astro.     4
  MATH 4220 PDEs  3 PHYS 3430 E&M I  3
  PHYS 3650 Quantum Phys. I  3 PHYS 2660 Sci. Computing  3
  ELECTIVE (x2)  6 ELECTIVE (x2) 6
    15   16
FOURTH   ASTR 4810 Astrophysics     3 3000-5000 level ASTR  3
    (or 3000-5000 level ASTR)   ASTR 4998 Thesis  3
  PHYS 3310 Statistical Physics  3 ELECTIVE (x3) 9
  ELECTIVE (x3)  9    
    15   15

¹Note that ASTR 1610 is not required but is recommended.

Requirements for the Distinguished Astronomy-Physics Major

Students must maintain a GPA of 3.4 or better. For the Distinguished Majors Program, students must meet the requirements of the Astronomy-Physics major described above and must also take PHYS 3660 (Quantum Phys. II) and a two-semester Senior Thesis (ASTR 4998). The six credits of elective Astronomy courses must consist of ASTR 4810 and one additional 4000-5000 level astronomy lecture course (excluding ASTR 4993 and 4998). This program may lead to the award of degrees with Distinction, High Distinction, or Highest Distinction.

Additional Information

For more information, students who have not yet declared a major, who are transferring, or who are in the Echols Program should contact the Pre-Majors Advisor Craig Sarazin.

Declared majors should contact their Major Advisor, either Craig Sarazin or Shane Davis.

Minors should contact the Minors Advisor, Shane Davis.

For general information, contact the secretary in

Departmental Secretary
Department of Astronomy
Astronomy Building, Room 204
PO Box 400325
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4325
voice: (434)924-7494
FAX: (434) 924-3104