Research in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is defined by three broad themes - the universe beyond our Milky Way galaxy, the extreme Universe, and the Universe where we live. These themes are linked through the science, instruments, techniques, and faculty involved in each area, and bound by crosscutting activities that are as important and distinctive to our department as the science themes themselves - computational astrophysics, instrument development, and a multi-messenger approach to exploring and studying the Universe. The themes also reflect strong synergies between the many different research areas and groups within the department and reveal our characteristic approach to astrophysics: we are strongly anchored in physics; we are willing to cross disciplinary boundaries to address big questions; we expand our reach through partnerships both within the University and across the globe; and perhaps most importantly, we are not afraid to be different, initiate new approaches, and invent new schools of thought.

The universe beyond our Milky Way galaxy

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

This theme unites activities that involve understanding the origin and evolution of the Universe. Dramatic progress in our ability to explore the early Universe, as well as powerful ideas about its origin and evolution, have led to an intellectual convergence of extragalactic astrophysics and fundamental cosmology, areas that used to be more distinct. Both rely upon similar tools for discovery: telescopes including the 6.5-m twin Magellan Telescopes, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), and x-ray and infrared satellites; surveys including the Dark Energy Survey (DES), Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST); cosmic microwave background instruments and gravitational-wave observatories; and big data and exascale computation. 

The extreme Universe

Chandra map of SN1006 “coupled” with the output of a particle-in-cell simulation of a shock.

The range of environments found in the Universe vastly exceed those that we can routinely achieve on Earth. These extremes include ultra-high-energy particles, magnetized plasmas at the centers of stars, black holes, gravitational waves, and conditions in extra-solar planetary systems and our own solar system. Magnetic fields play an essential role in the life of the cosmos, and understanding how they arise and evolve requires environments and conditions usually beyond the terrestrial laboratory. Understanding these extreme environments can help answer big questions about the how the Universe works, as well as provide insight into the laws of physics and the kind of phenomena they allow.

The Universe where we live

Artist's conception of two exoplanets orbiting sun-like stars in the open cluster NGC 6811.

With the discovery of exoplanets some twenty years ago one of the biggest questions humankind can ask, Are we alone?, entered the realm of questions ripe to answer. This simple question and the discoveries made to date have led to new questions and investigations concerning the nature of planets, the formation and evolution of planetary systems (including the stars at their centers), and astrobiology. Exoplanet research is an observationally driven field, with the discovery and characterization of new planets propelling the development and refinement of models and theories that explain features of both the exoplanets and the Solar System, allowing us to see our system in a broader context.