Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

The undergraduate major has two tracks—one in general astronomy and one in astrophysics/physics (see the department website at aps.colorado.edu).

The general astronomy track is designed to meet student needs for basic, undergraduate training in space sciences (astronomy, astrophysics, planetary sciences, and space physics). Undergraduates are prepared for both academic research assistant careers and the industrial market (aerospace, computer software, instrumentation, and other technical areas) as well as for science education, science journalism, and space policy. This track provides a liberal arts degree in the science of astronomy, observations, and technology as well as core training in astronomical sciences and mathematics, applied physics, and computational and instrumental technology for professions in the space sciences. The track can focus on observations (ground-based telescopes, rocket probes, space-borne observatories) or on K–12 science education, for which astronomy provides excellent science content for motivating young students. It also offers broad training for careers in science policy and science writing.

The bachelor’s degree track in astrophysics/physics is directed toward students interested in pursuing graduate studies in astrophysics by focusing on multidisciplinary work in physics and mathematics together with astronomy. Graduates are provided with scientific and technological training in the space sciences, including mathematical, physical, computational, and instrumental expertise. An honors thesis or other research work is encouraged but not required.

Specific goals for both tracks are to provide:

  • both theoretical and practical knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics. The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences is one of the few programs that combines both astrophysics and planetary science, providing a unified view of space sciences, the solar system and comparative planetology, stellar and galactic astronomy, and cosmology. 
  • courses and significant hands-on experience with telescopes, optics, instrumentation, as well as data analysis and image processing and numeric modeling. These skills are useful for students wishing to pursue graduate degrees or careers in aerospace, technical, or computer industries.
  • opportunities for faculty-advised research and senior (honors) theses.

Course code for this program is ASTR. 

Bachelor's Degree Program(s)

Bachelor's Degree in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

General Astronomy Track 

This is appropriate for someone aiming for a career in K–12 education, science journalism, science policy, information technology, science management, or technical work that does not require a graduate degree.

Required Courses and Semester Credit Hours 

  • APPM 1350 and 1360 or MATH 1300 and 2300 Calculus 1 and 2—8-10
  • ASTR 1030 and 1040 Accelerated Introductory Astronomy 1 and 2 (or ASTR 1010 and 1020 Introductory Astronomy 1 and 2 with permission)—8 
  • PHYS 1110, 1120, and 1140 General Physics 1 and 2—9
  • One of the following four courses:
    ASTR 2500/ASEN 1400 Gateway to Space—3
    ASTR 2600 Computational Techniques—3
    PHYS 2130 General Physics 3—3
    PHYS 2170 Foundations of Modern Physics—3
  • Minimum of two additional courses selected from:
    ASTR 2000 Ancient Astronomies—3
    ASTR 2010 Modern Cosmology—3
    ASTR 2020 Introduction to Space Astronomy and Exploration—3
    ASTR 2030 Black Holes—3
    ASTR 2040 Life in the Universe—3
    ASTR 2500 Gateway to Space—3
    ASTR 2600 Computational Techniques—3
    ASTR 3300 Extraterrestrial Life—3
  • One other science sequence with lab. Can be satisfied by any sequence that satisfies arts and sciences core curriculum in natural sciences with lab, for example:
     CHEM 1113, 1114, and 1131, 1134; EBIO 1210–1230, GEOL 1010, 1020, and 1030, ATOC 1050, 1060, and 1070, or equivalent—7-10
  • One upper-division course sequence:
    ASTR 3720 Planets and their Atmospheres and ASTR 3750 Planets, Moons, and Rings or
    ASTR 3730 Astrophysics 1: Stellar and Interstellar and ASTR 3830 Astrophysics 2: Galactic and Extragalactic—6
  • Four additional courses from the following or from those sequence courses not used for the upper-division sequence requirement, above :
    ASEN 4010 Introduction to Space Dynamics—3
    ASTR 3510 Observations and Instrumentation 1—4
    ASTR 3520 Observations and Instrumentation 2—4
    ASTR 3710 Formation and Dynamics of Planetary Systems—3
    ASTR 3740 Cosmology and Relativity—3
    ASTR 3760 Solar and Space Physics—3
    ASTR 3800 Scientific Data Analysis and Computing—3
    ASTR 4330 Cosmochemistry—3
    ASTR 4800 Space Practice and Policy—3
    ASTR 5760 Astrophysical Instrumentation (with instructor’s permission)—3
    ATOC 4720 Atmospheric Physics and Dynamics—3 

A minor is available that may be satisfied by taking various combinations of courses among the diverse possibilities offered by the department (see below). 

Astrophysics/Physics Track
(Jointly Supervised by the APS and Physics Departments)

For students aiming for a graduate program in astronomy or planetary sciences. Similar to Physics Plan 2 (Astrophysics), with additional astrophysics instrumentation labs and different electives.

Required Courses and Semester Credit Hours 

  • APPM 1350, 1360, 2350; or MATH 1300, 2300, and 2400 (Calculus 1, 2, and 3); and APPM 2360 or MATH 3130 and 4430 (Linear Algebra and Differential Equations)—16-20
  • ASTR 1030 and 1040 Accelerated Introductory Astronomy—8
  • One upper-division course sequence: ASTR 3720 Planets and their Atmospheres and ASTR 3750 Planets, Moons, and Rings; or ASTR 3730 Astrophysics 1: Stellar and Interstellar and ASTR 3830 Astrophysics 2: Galactic and Extragalactic—6
  • PHYS 1110, 1120, and 1140 General Physics 1 and 2 and PHYS 2150, 2170, and 2210 Sophomore Physics—16
  • PHYS 3310 and 3320 Electromagnetism and PHYS 3210 and 3220 Classical and Quantum Mechanics—12
  • Suggested electives: PHYS 4230 Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics or PHYS 4410 Quantum Mechanics II or PHYS 4420 Nuclear and Particle Physics or PHYS 4510 Optics or PHYS 4150 Plasma Physics
  • Three additional courses from the following or any of 3720, 3750, 3730, 3830 not used for the requirement above:
    ASEN 4010 Introduction to Space Dynamics—3 
    ASTR 3510 Observations and Instrumentation 1—4
    ASTR 3520 Observations and Instrumentation 2—4
    ASTR 3710 Formation and Dynamics of Planetary Systems—3
    ASTR 3740 Cosmology and Relativity—3
    ASTR 3760 Solar and Space Physics—3
    ASTR 3800 Scientific Data Analysis and Computing—3
    ASTR 4330 Cosmochemistry—3
    ATOC 4720 Atmospheric Physics and Dynamics—3
  • Any 5000- or 6000-level physical and planetary sciences course with instructor’s permission—3
  • Total credit hours for the major 23 hours minimum in astrophysics and 28 hours minimum in physics (this must include at least 15 upper-division hours in astrophysics and 12 in physics).

Minor Program in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

Declaration of a minor in astrophysical and planetary sciences is open to any student enrolled at CU-Boulder, regarless of college or school. Course work applied to the minor may be applied to another major or toward core curriculum requirements. Minimum requirements for a minor include:

  • A minimum of six ASTR courses, including at least three advanced courses (numbered above 3500).
  • All course work applied to a minor must be completed with a grade of C- or better (no pass/fail work may be applied). The GPA for all minor degree course work must be equal to 2.00 (C) or higher.
  • Students pursuing an individually structured major or a major in distributed studies are not eligible to earn a minor.
  • Students are allowed to apply no more than three courses, including two advanced courses, of transfer work toward a minor.

Course Requirements (six courses required)

Elementary (maximum of three courses)

  • ASTR 1030 and 1040 Accelerated Introductory Astronomy 1 and  2 (or ASTR 1010 and 1020 Introductory Astronomy 1 and 2 with permission)—4
  • ASTR 2000 Ancient Astronomies of the World—3
  • ASTR 2010 Modern Cosmology: Origin and Structure of the Universe—3
  • ASTR 2020 Introduction to Space Astronomy—3
  • ASTR 2030 Black Holes—3
  • ASTR 2040 Life in the Universe—3
  • ASTR 2500/ASEN 1400  Gateway to Space—3
  • ASTR 2600 Computational Techniques—3
  • ASTR 3300 Extraterrestrial Life—3

Advanced (minimum of three courses)

Two courses from an upper-level course sequence:

  • Planetary Sequence: ASTR 3720 Planets and Their Atmospheres and ASTR 3750 Planets, Moons, and Rings—6 
    or
  • Astrophysics Sequence: ASTR 3730 Stellar and Interstellar and ASTR 3830 Galactic and Extragalactic—6

Plus one course from the following:

  • ASTR 3510 Observations and Instrumentation 1—4
  • ASTR 3520 Observations and Instrumentation 2—4
  • ASTR 3710 Formation and Dynamics of Planetary Systems—3
  • ASTR 3720 Planets and Their Atmospheres—3
  • ASTR 3730 Astrophysics 1—3
  • ASTR 3740 Cosmology and Relativity—3
  • ASTR 3750 Planets, Moons and Rings—3
  • ASTR 3760 Solar and Space Physics—3
  • ASTR 3830 Astrophysics 2—3
  • ASTR 4330 Cosmochemistry—3
  • ASTR 4840 Independent Research—1-8
  • ATOC 4720 Introduction to Atmospheric Physics and Dynamics—3

Additional information is available from any faculty mentor. See http://aps.colorado.edu/undergrad_main.html

Graduate Degree Program(s)

Graduate Study in Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

The curriculum and research in the department emphasizes three major areas: astrophysics, planetary sciences, and solar and space physics.

Departmental Requirements. Those wishing to pursue graduate work in APS leading to candidacy for an advanced degree should carefully read requirements for advanced degrees in the Graduate School section. The following are special departmental requirements.

Master’s Degree

The Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences does not normally admit students for a terminal master's degree program.

Prerequisites. A thorough undergraduate preparation in physics and mathematics is necessary for graduate study. Courses should include thermodynamics, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, and mathematics at least through complex variables and differential equations.

Qualifying Examination. The Graduate Record Examination aptitude tests and advanced test in physics are used in place of a qualifying examination, and this examination should be taken before the time of application to the department. 

Preliminary Interview. Students in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences are given an oral interview prior to the beginning of the fall semester of their first year. This oral interview examines fundamental knowledge in undergraduate physics and mathematics. Students are required to overcome any academic deficiencies within a year in order to remain in the program.

Course Requirements. Under Plan I, a student must present a thesis for 6 credit hours plus 24 credit hours of course work, at least 12 of which must be APS courses numbered 5000 or above. Under Plan II, additional hours of approved graduate courses must be presented for a total of 30 credit hours, of which at least 16 must be APS courses numbered 5000 or above. The master’s
examination under Plan I covers the thesis and related topics. The examination under Plan II is more comprehensive and may be either written or oral or both. Master’s examinations are given after other degree requirements have been completed, but may be given during the last semester of residence if the student is making satisfactory progress on required courses. 

Doctoral Degree

In addition to the master’s degree requirements above, PhD students must complete the following:

Course Requirements. A minimum of 39 semester hours of work (including 4 hours of graduate seminars) in courses numbered 5000 or above is required; however, the overall emphasis is on independent study and research. A minimum of 30 semester hours of PhD dissertion credits are required.

Language Requirement. None.

Examinations. Students in the PhD program are required to remove any deficiencies identified at the preliminary interview, to pass a two-part comprehensive examination composed of a written test on graduate course material and an oral exam on a research paper based on a semi-independent research project, and satisfactorily defend the thesis before a faculty committee.The department offers the PhD degree. During the first year of graduate study, students generally obtain a broad background in courses regarded as basic to all three areas in addition to more specialized studies. Many students take graduate-level courses in other departments (e.g., Departments of Physics, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Geological Sciences, Applied Mathematics, or Aerospace Engineering), depending upon their particular interests or participation in interdisciplinary programs (see below). The departmental core courses in the three areas are:

  • ASTR 5110 Atomic and Molecular Processes 
  • ASTR 5120 Radiative and Dynamical Processes 
  • ASTR 5400 Introduction to Fluid Dynamics
  • ASTR 5540 Mathematical Methods
  • ASTR 5550 Observations, Data Analysis, and Statistics

Descriptions of more specialized courses follow. Students interested in applying to this department are invited to write to Graduate Program Assistant, Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, 391 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0391.

Astrophysics

The department offers a broad range of courses and research in this area, leading to the PhD degree. Graduate-level courses are offered in the following subjects:

  • ASTR 5140 Astrophysical and Space Plasmas
  • ASTR 5700 Stellar Structure and Evolution
  • ASTR 5710 High-Energy Astrophysics
  • ASTR 5720 Galaxies
  • ASTR 5730 Stellar Atmospheres and Radiative Transfer
  • ASTR 5740 Interstellar Astrophysics
  • ASTR 5760 Astrophysical Instrumentation
  • ASTR 5770 Cosmology
  • ASTR 6000 Seminar in Astrophysics

Research in observational and theoretical astrophysics is conducted in the following areas:

  • Stellar atmospheres, radiative transfer, stellar winds of hot/cool stars
  • Formation of stars and planetary systems
  • Solar physics
  • Interstellar and intergalactic medium
  • Cosmology and large-scale structure of the universe; galaxy formation
  • Stellar interiors, black holes, and neutron stars
  • Gravitational physics
  • Cosmic X-ray sources, supernovae and their remnants, and accretion phenomena, jets and clusters of galaxies
  • Galactic evolution, quasars, and active galaxies
  • Radio and sub-millimeter astronomy, microwave background
  • Plasma astrophysics and MHD
  • Astrophysical fluid dynamics
  • UV, optical, IR, submillimeter, radio, and X-ray instrumentation
  • Instrument and detector development
  • Sounding rocket and balloon astronomy

Departmental Equipment and Research. Research is carried out with the ARC 3.5m Apache Point telescope and with national telescopes and laboratories and international collaborators: High Altitude Observatory (HAO) in Boulder (solar physics), National Optical Astronomical Observatories in Tucson and Chile (optical astronomy), Caltech Sub-Millimeter Observatory, National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the Very Large Array (VLA), the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Chandra, SWIFT, and XMM X-ray telescopes, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and the National Solar Observatory (NSO). CU-Boulder also is involved with the Messenger (Mercury), MAVEN (Mars), JUNO (Jupiter), Cassini (Saturn), and New Horizons (Pluto) missions, and the HST Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

Locally, APS operates a 24-inch Cassegrain-Coude and 16- and 18-inch Cassegrain telescopes through Sommers-Bausch Observatory, available for photographic, photometric, and spectrographic observations, as well as for instrument and detector development. Opportunities for graduate research also are found with the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA), and JILA. See Graduate School for more information. 

Planetary Sciences

As planetary sciences is an interdisciplinary field, students can obtain degrees from the Departments of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Geological Sciences, Physics, or Aerospace Engineering. Boulder is also home to a division of the Southwest Research Institute, with over 25 planetary scientists, many of whom work with CU students. Research and courses related to the physics and dynamics of the atmospheres of other planets, planetary surfaces and interiors, and other solar system studies are available in programs leading to the MS and PhD degrees. Courses related to the physics and dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere are offered through ATOC. Graduate-level courses in these areas are:

  • ASTR 5140 Astrophysical and Space Plasma
  • ASTR 5300 Introduction to Magnetospheres
  • ASTR 5330 Cosmochemistry
  • ASTR 5410 Fluid Instabilities, Waves, and Turbulence
  • ASTR 5800 Planetary Surfaces and Interiors
  • ASTR 5810 Planetary Atmospheres
  • ASTR 5820 Origin and Evolution of Planetary Systems
  • ASTR 5830 Topics in Planetary Science
  • ASTR 5835 Seminar in Planetary Science
  • ATOC 5050 Physical Processes of the Atmosphere and Ocean
  • ATOC 5560 Radiative Processes in Planetary Atmospheres
  • ATOC 5960 Theories of Climate and Climate Variability

Research in theoretical, observational, and laboratory atmospheric and planetary science is conducted in the following areas:

  • Planetary disks, Kuiper Belt objects, extra-solar planets;
  • Dynamics and chemistry of planetary atmospheres, planetary clouds, and planetary climates; evolution of planetary atmospheres; and comparison of planetary and terrestrial atmospheres;
  • Planetary aeronomy, airglow and aurora, UV and IR spectroscopy, noctilucent clouds, structure and composition of planetary atmospheres (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto), planetary magneto-spheres, and cometary physics;
  • Satellite monitoring of the Earth’s atmosphere and environment, including remote sensing of mesospheric ozone, stratospheric trace species, convection, outgoing radiation, and magnetospheric dynamics; and
  • Planetary geology, planetary interiors and surfaces, and planetary geophysics.

Graduate research opportunities exist with individual faculty members, as well as jointly with academic and research units such as the Departments of Geological Sciences, Physics, and Aerospace Engineering, as well as the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). The latter is involved in space investigations of the Earth, Sun, and planets. Financial support is available in connection with all of the above research activities.

Graduate Interdisciplinary Study

Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

This interdisciplinary program provides an educational and research environment to examine the dynamical, physical, and chemical structures of the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface, and the manner in which they interact. For further information, see the ATOC listing. APS participates in the master’s degree program in computational science (under applied math).

Geophysics

The department participates in the interdepartmental PhD program in geophysics. For further information, refer to the discussion of the geophysics program in the Graduate School section.