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Astronomy

The study of astronomy embraces questions that have been posed since humans first looked at the sky. How old is the universe? Will it continue to expand forever? When did the first stars form? How do galaxies evolve? Do all stars have planetary systems? Are any exoplanets habitable? Could there be life elsewhere in the universe? Within that cosmological framework, astronomers at Vassar study the universe on several scales. They study and observe galaxies - gravitationally-bound collections of hundreds of billions of stars - to answer questions about them. Why do some galaxies form spiral structures? How do colliding galaxies interact? What are the life cycles of stars and star clusters within them? At the on-campus observatory, students monitor variable objects like supernovae (exploded high mass stars), quasars (supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies), cataclysmic binaries (stars in contact with each other, exchanging mass as they evolve), exoplanets (detected as they cross in front of their star), and solar system objects.

The hands-on approach to astronomy at Vassar was shaped by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer and also the first director of the Vassar College Observatory. She was famous for pushing her students to think for themselves, do their own research, and come to their own conclusions. She believed that students work best when they are part of a supportive scientific community. The astronomy faculty at Vassar are committed to the same principles, with a myriad of opportunities for learning and research available to students in the department.

The astronomy curriculum includes introductory and advanced astrophysics courses with topics covering planets and exoplanets, stars, interstellar matter, galaxies, cosmology, and observational techniques. Prospective students interested in finding out more about the department or in arranging a visit can contact us at physics@vassar.edu.