Cosmology, Astronomy, & Astrophysics

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The School of Earth and Space Exploration is home to one of the world's leading centers for observational and theoretical research in astronomy and astrophysics. This includes over a dozen faculty members, and over half a dozen other PhD astronomers and astrophysicists (research staff and postdocs), and (typically) about 20 graduate students. Our research interests range from the Solar System to stars, to the Milky Way, to the most distant galaxies in the Universe, and from cosmology to fundamental questions of astrobiology.

We have access to state-of-the-art facilities: 1) World-class telescopes and instrumentation for the sub-mm, radio, infrared, and optical 2) An interdisciplinary theoretical program, 3) Laboratories for the development of state-of-the-art instrumentation 4) Extensive computing facilities, including in-house parallel supercomputers. We also host a steady stream of visiting scientists. Astrophysics graduate students benefit from the low student-faculty ratio and extensive research opportunities in a supportive and friendly environment.

Learn more about our astrophysics undergraduate degree and the PhD in astrophysics. We also offer undergraduate minors in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Cosmology, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy

Cosmology treats the big questions: What is the history of the universe, and what does its future look like? What is the mysterious dark matter that dominates its composition? How is the expansion of the universe accelerating with time, and why? How does structure form in the universe? How can we use the observational evidence offered by astrophysics to address these questions? Cosmology within the School treats a range of these questions, from both theoretical and observational perspectives.

Principal Faculty and Research Scientists

Research Group

Computational Astrophysics

Laboratory experiments in astronomy are usually impossible, and perhaps that's a good thing: Even if we could set up a supernova explosion in the lab, it would probably be a bad idea. Therefore, astrophysicists turn instead to detailed computations, relying on the fact that the physical laws governing astronomical objects are the same ones that apply on Earth. Astrophysical processes are extremely nonlinear and computers are essential to understanding them.

Principal Faculty and Research Scientists

Star Formation and Evolution

Stars are responsible for lighting up the universe and transforming the hydrogen and helium gas left by the big bang into the elements of the periodic table out of which the complex structures of planets and life are made. The evolution of stars is critical to understanding processes on scales from the evolution of galaxies over cosmic time to the formation and development of planets in individual solar systems. Star formation and stellar evolution are the story of the struggle between gravity and the energy produced by nuclear fusion in the interiors of stars. Faculty at the School explore the problems of star formation and stellar evolution through a variety of observational and theoretical approaches. ASU researchers use the Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer space telescopes to study star forming clouds and stellar populations in the Milky Way and other galaxies, the massive explosions that result when stars end their lives as supernovae, and the compact objects left at the end of a star's evolution. Exploration systems engineers at the School are developing the next generation of ground and space-based multiwavelength instrumentation for studying star forming regions. State-of-the-art computer models are run on ASU's Saguaro parallel computing facility to model the clouds and disks that give birth to stars and planets and the lifecycles of stars, their dynamic interiors, and violent deaths.

Principal Faculty and Research Scientists

Galaxy Formation and Evolution

Understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies is fundamental to understanding how the universe transformed from a bland mix of hydrogen and helium after the Big Bang to the beautiful diversity of objects we see today. Galaxy formation results from gravity acting on small variations in the matter density of the early universe. The process begins with the formation of gravitationally bound "halos" dominated by dark matter. These halos host dense accumulations of normal matter, nurturing the formation of the myriad stars that make a galaxy visible. Because galaxies are massive, they retain some of the heavy elements produced in their stars, and after many generations of stars they harbor conditions ripe for formation of planets and of life. ASU galaxy research uses current and recent observational projects, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the GRAPES project, the PEARS survey, and the Large Area Lyman Alpha Survey. The newly installed WFC3 instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope, promise a bright future for the field. ASU researchers also study the relationship between galaxies and the supermassive black holes they harbor.

Principal Faculty and Research Scientists


Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems and Planets

If astrophysics teaches us anything, it is that space is not empty. And the formation of planets and planetary systems, including our Solar System, doesn't happen in a vacuum, either. Our group at ASU is exploring the connections between planetary systems and astrophysical environment, by asking such questions as: How do protoplanetary disks evolve in rich clusters, where they are exposed to intense ultraviolet radiation and supernova blast waves? What effect does this have on planet growth? Is a nearby supernova the source of the short-lived radionuclides inferred from meteorites to have existed in our solar system? How did chondrules and other meteoritic inclusions form? What can meteorites tell us about the timing of planet formation in our solar system? And, How do icy bodies like satellites, Kuiper Belt Objects and comets evolve over time due to decay of radioactivities? Do they form hydrothermal systems? The astrophysical environment sets the stage for the formation and evolution of planets, because planetary systems don't happen in a vacuum.

Principal Faculty and Research Scientists




Telescopes, Instruments, and Other Observational Facilities

The School's researchers have access to a broad suite of world-class telescopes and instruments through the Arizona telescope system, along with access to national ground- and space-based facilities. The Arizona telescope system provides access to the 11 meter equivalent Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham, the 6.5 meter MMT on Mt. Hopkins, the 2.2 meter Bok telescope on Kitt Peak (all in Arizona), and the twin 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatories in Chile, along with several smaller telescopes. Time on these facilities is allocated through a single unified process for all three of Arizona's state-supported universities (ASU, U of A, and NAU). ASU is also a partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope project, under construction at Las Campanas in Chile.

These facilities have a large suite of state-of-the-art instruments, providing both imaging and spectroscopy at both optical and near-infrared wavelengths. Adaptive optics and interferometry are under active development for the MMT and the LBT, and will allow high angular resolution astronomy from Arizona mountaintops in the near future. SESE researchers can also apply for time on Arizona radio telescopes, notably including the 12 meter diameter millimeter-wave dish on Kitt Peak, and the 10 meter Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Observatory on Mt. Graham.

Computational and Theoretical Resources

In-house High Performance Computing — anchored with the 5,000 core, 10TB RAM Saguaro cluster in which the School owns 25% — places our researchers at the forefront of numerical astrophysics. The School's scientists use the Saguaro cluster for numerical simulations with a variety of tools, including smooth particle hydrodynamics (the SNSPH and GADGET-2 codes) and adaptive mesh refinement hydrodynamics (the FLASH and PROMPI codes). These resources and tools allow us to study the formation and evolution of objects on scales ranging from 100 Mpc or more (a region larger than the local universe) to an individual neutron star (about the size of Tempe).

Laboratory and Instrument Development Resources

The Laboratory for Astronomical and Space Instrumentation (LASI) offers access to clean room space (class 1000, 100, and 10, with over 3000 square feet per class). It also provides a fully functional optical testbed for QE, linearity and cosmetic testing of detectors over wavelengths from the mid-UV to the near-IR as well as hardware assembly and associated electronics integration. Proximity to the ASU Machine Shop (which has produced space-qualified hardware for Mars missions) offers quick custom machining and integration of pieces in instrument assembly.