The Astronomy Major

If you are thinking about majoring in Astronomy, you should go to the departmental office, Merrill 214, and ask to talk to Professor Loinaz. In the meantime, this page provides an outline of the requirements for a major. (The catalog is the official word on these matters, so read it, too.) 

A joint Five College Astronomy Department (FCAD) provides instruction at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts. All introductory and some advanced courses are taught at Amherst, but students are also encouraged to take advanced courses at the four other institutions. As a result of this partnership, students can enjoy the benefits of a first-rate liberal arts education while maintaining association with a research department of international stature. Students may pursue independent theoretical and observational work in association with Amherst professors or with any member of the FCAD, either during the academic year or the summer term. The notation “FC” below indicates courses offered by the FCAD. These courses are listed in the catalogs of all the institutions. The facilities of all five institutions are available to departmental majors.

Once you have decided to declare the major, you will need to obtain the appropriate form from the Registrar's page, complete it, and have the current Physics and Astronomy Department chair, as well as your current advisor, sign it, before returning it to the Registrar.

The Astronomy major requires 12 total courses, in several areas:

Required Courses in Math/Stats, Physics, and Computer Science

  • Mathematics 111: Introduction to the Calculus
  • Mathematics 121: Intermediate Calculus
  • Statistics 135: Intro to Statistics via Modeling (formerly Math 135)
  • Physics 123: The Newtonian Synthesis: Dynamics of Particles and Systems, Waves (or Physics 116)
  • Physics 124: The Maxwellian Synthesis: Dynamics of Charges and Fields, Optics (or Physics 117)
  • Computer Science 111: Introduction to Computer Science I

Required Astronomy Courses

  • Astronomy 228 (FC28): Astrophysics I: Stars and Galaxies
  • Astronomy 335 (FC35): Astrophysics II: Stellar and Planetary Structure
  • Astronomy 352 (FC52): Astrophysics III: Galaxies and the Universe

Elective Courses

Along with the 9 required courses, a major must complete 3 elective courses according to the following specifications:

  1. At least one elective course in Astronomy to satisfy a depth requirement in the major.
  2. At least two additional electives at the 300-level or higher, e.g., a 300-level Astronomy course, one selected from the list below, or one approved by the department.

Depending on background, Astronomy majors may place out of several of these courses. Students who have placed out of calculus, introductory physics, introductory statistics, or introductory computer science are excused from taking those courses. Astronomy majors may place out of up to three courses without having to replace those courses. Students placing out of more than three courses must replace all but three of those courses with additional Astronomy courses numbered 200 or higher, approved Physics courses numbered 200 or higher, Computer Science courses numbered 112 or higher, or other courses approved by the Department to complete the major.

Approved electives

  • Astronomy 220 (FC20): [Topical Courses, e.g., Black Holes, Astrobiology, etc.]
  • Astronomy 223 (FC23): Planetary Science
  • Astronomy 224 (FC24): Stellar Astronomy
  • Astronomy 225 (FC25): Galaxies and Dark Matter
  • Astronomy 226 (FC26): Cosmology
  • Astronomy 330 (FC30): [Topical Courses, e.g. Exoplanet Atmospheres, High Energy Astrophysics]
  • Astronomy 337 (FC37): Observational Techniques I
  • Astronomy 341 (FC41): Observational Techniques II
  • Physics 230: Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
  • Physics 343: Dynamics
  • Physics 347: Electromagnetic Theory I
  • Chemistry 351: Quantum Chemistry and Spectroscopy
  • Chemistry 361: Physical Chemistry
  • Geology 341: Environmental and Solid Earth Geophysics
  • Geology 431: Geochemistry
  • Mathematics 230: Intermediate Statistics
  • Mathematics 335: Time Series Analysis and Applications
  • Mathematics 360: Probability
  • Computer Science 201: Data Structures and Algorithms I
  • Computer Science 301: Data Structures and Algorithms II
  • Computer Science 341: Applied Algorithms 

To gain approval for an alternate elective, students must file a petition for the Department to consider. To submit a petition, email the Chair of the Department with relevant information about the course to be considered, for example, a syllabus from a recent semester of the course or a link to the course description.

Comprehensive Evaluation

All Astronomy majors must pass a written comprehensive examination in the second semester of their senior year.

Honors Program

Students who wish to receive departmental Honors should enroll in ASTR 498 and 499 in addition to completing the other requirements for the major. To enter the Honors program, a student must attain an average grade of at least B– in all required courses taken through the end of the junior year, or receive department approval. At the end of the first semester of the senior year the student’s progress on the Honors problem will determine the advisability of continuation in the Honors program.

The aim of Departmental Honors work in Astronomy is to provide the student an opportunity to pursue, under faculty direction, in-depth research into a project in experimental and/or theoretical astronomy/astrophysics. Current areas of research in the department include active galactic nuclei (accreting supermassive black holes) and their host galaxies, the Galactic center and Sgr A*, accretion-driven outflows, multi-wavelength and time domain surveys, high-precision infrared photometry, atmospheric characterization of extrasolar planets, and the modeling of planetary climate. Additional opportunities within the Five College Astronomy Department include cosmology, cosmogony, radio astronomy, relativistic astrophysics, laboratory astrophysics, gravitational theory, infrared balloon astronomy, stellar astrophysics, spectroscopy, and exobiology. Facilities include the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Laboratory for Infrared Astrophysics, the Large Millimeter Telescope, balloon astronomy equipment (16-inch telescope, cryogenic detectors), and modern 24- and 16-inch Cassegrain reflectors. Subject to availability of resources and faculty interest, Honors projects arising out of students’ particular interests are encouraged.

Students must submit a written thesis on the Honors work a few weeks before the end of their final semester (in late April for spring graduation). Students give a preliminary presentation of their work during the first semester, and a final presentation at the end of the second semester. In addition, they take oral examinations devoted primarily to the thesis work. The departmental recommendation for the various levels of Honors will be based on the student’s record, Departmental Honors work, Comprehensive Examination, and Oral Examination on the thesis.

Other Aspects of the Astronomy Major

Departmental & FCAD Colloquium:  All students majoring in Astronomy must also attend at least nine public astronomy lectures during the senior year. Colloquium schedules are online here:


Physics and Astronomy Department

AC# 2244
Amherst College
Amherst, MA 01002-5000
William Loinaz, Chair