Professor David Charbonneau, Director of Undergraduate Studies

The science of astrophysics involves the study of matter and radiation in the universe as understood through the laws of physics. Modern astronomical instruments reveal a great variety of objects scarcely imagined a few decades ago, including X-ray binary stars, pulsars, and quasars. Astronomical phenomena exhibit an extreme range of physical conditions, from superfluid neutrons in neutron stars, high-temperature nuclear reactions in supernovae, and strong gravitational fields near black holes, to the unique state of the universe during its earliest phases. Theoretical attempts to describe these and more familiar phenomena (such as stars and galaxies) have achieved a useful understanding in many cases. However, our overall knowledge of the universe is still woefully incomplete, and our contemporary physical knowledge is often stretched to its limits in attempting to understand physical conditions which cannot be reproduced in terrestrial laboratories.

The concentration in Astrophysics introduces students to a broad range of phenomena through a program of both observational and theoretical courses. This program builds from a foundation of modern physics to a general account of the known contents of the universe. The junior tutorial places students in close contact with the wide range of research activities at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Undergraduates are strongly encouraged to pursue research projects (conducted under the supervision of members of the faculty), which culminate in their junior papers and optional senior theses. Since the emphasis of astrophysics is on the explanation of phenomena in the universe in terms of physical theory, the initial stages of a concentration in Astrophysics closely resemble those of the Physics concentration, and the courses offered by the Department of Astronomy are readily accessible to any student with a good physics background. Our concentration offers avenues similar to Physics for future employment and research opportunities.

Astrophysics offers joint concentrations with other departments. In general, such concentrations involve meeting requirements for honors candidates in both fields. Joint concentrations combining Astrophysics with either Physics or with Earth and Planetary Sciences are particularly encouraged, although various other combinations are certainly possible. Students interested in joint concentrations are encouraged to contact the director of undergraduate studies at 617-496-6515 or

Students interested in completing a master’s degree in astrophysics during their fourth year can find more detailed information in our section of the Advanced Standing at Harvard College booklet, and should contact the astronomy department early in their degree program.


Requirements: 12 half-courses

  1. Required courses:

    1. Astronomy 16 and 17. (2 half courses; see 7a. below)

    2. Physics 15a, 15b, and 15c. (3 half courses; see 7b. below)

    3. Mathematics 21a and 21b, or Mathematics 23a and 23b, or Mathematics 25a and 25b, or Applied Mathematics 21a and 21b. (2 half courses; see 7c. below)

    4. Astronomy 98: Research Tutorial, generally taken in the spring semester of the junior year. (1 half course)

    5. Two additional courses in astronomy. (2 half courses; see 7d. below)

    6. Two additional courses in astronomy or related fields to complete the requirement of 12 half-courses. (2 half courses; see 7e. below)

  2. Tutorial: Required, see 1d. above.

  3. Honors Eligibility: Students who wish to be considered for honors must satisfy requirements 1e. and 1f. by completing Astronomy 99 and/or courses at the 100 level or above. None of the courses satisfying 1e. or 1f. may be taken Pass/Fail. Courses that meet this requirement include:

      1. Astronomy 99, a full-year course leading to the senior thesis. The Department of Astronomy is located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, one of the world’s largest astrophysical research institutes. The Center for Astrophysics offers significant undergraduate research opportunities, which students are encouraged to pursue through the senior thesis.

      2. Any 100-level or 200-level course in astronomy.

      3. Astronomy 97.

      4. Physics 143a, 143b, 151, 153, 175, or 181.

      5. Earth and Planetary Sciences 100, 121, 132, or 150.

      6. Applied Mathematics 105a, 105b, 111, or 115.

  4. Thesis: Optional. See item 3. above.

  5. Joint concentrations: Joint concentrations are permitted to enable students to pursue study at the interface of Astrophysics and another field such as Physics or Earth and Planetary Sciences. Students must meet with the director of undergraduate studies to develop the plan of study.

  6. General Examination: None.

  7. Other information:

    1. Astronomy 16 and 17: Together these two courses provide a complete introductory survey of astrophysics using single-variable calculus and freshman mechanics. These courses are not sequential and thus may be taken in either order.

    2. Physics: Physics 11a may be substituted for Physics 15a provided students follow Physics 11a with Physics 15b and 15c. This option is intended for students with no previous exposure to Physics, or students who complete Physics 11a prior to deciding to concentrate in Astrophysics. Qualified students may replace Physics 15a with Physics 16, to be followed by 15b and 15c.

    3. Math: Math Ma, Mb, 1a, and 1b normally do not count toward concentration credit.

    4. Students may count one half course selected from the following list for concentration credit, provided the course is completed prior to enrolling in other courses offered by the Department of Astronomy.

      1. Astronomy 1 or Astronomy 2,

      2. a freshman seminar in Astronomy, or

      3. Science A-35, A-36, A-54, or another course offered in the Science of the Physical Universe category of the Program in General Education that focuses on astronomy.

    5. Related fields: Includes all departmental courses offered in physics, earth and planetary sciences, mathematics, and applied mathematics that count towards the respective concentration requirements. Appropriate courses in applied physics, computer science, chemistry, engineering sciences, mathematics, and statistics may be counted for concentration credit with permission from the director of undergraduate studies.

    6. Graduate Study: Students considering graduate study should contact the director of undergraduate studies to prepare a study plan to meet this goal.

    7. Pass/Fail: At most one of the courses counted for concentration credit may be taken Pass/Fail.


Upon joining the concentration, students are assigned a faculty adviser; students continue with the same adviser throughout their three years, unless there is a particular reason for making a change. Students meet with their adviser at least once per term and at other times as needed.
For up-to-date information on advising in Astrophysics, please see the Advising Programs Office website.


The Department of Astronomy is located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which also contains the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College Observatory, at 60 Garden Street and 160 Concord Avenue, Cambridge. The Center for Astrophysics has a large staff of scientists and is among the largest institutions devoted to astronomy and astrophysics in the world. A very broad range of astrophysical research is conducted by the many scientists at the Center, in its divisions of Atomic and Molecular Physics; High-Energy Astrophysics; Optical and Infrared Astronomy; Radio and Geoastronomy; Theoretical Astrophysics; and Solar, Stellar and Planetary Sciences. Scientists in these divisions encourage students to participate in their research. Full-time summer and part-time academic year employment is often available for Harvard undergraduates at the Center; please contact the director of undergraduate studies for more information.

Through the Center for Astrophysics students may make use of a wide range of observational, experimental, and theoretical facilities. These include two 6.5-meter Magellan Telescopes in Chile; the Multiple-Mirror Telescope and the 60- and 48-inch reflecting telescopes of the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona; and the Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Access to the 120-foot radome-enclosed radio telescope of the Northeast Radio Observatory Corporation at Westford, Massachusetts, is also possible. In addition, students may participate in the analysis of data from a number of national and international observatories, including X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, ultraviolet and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope, solar data from SOHO, radio data from the Very Large Array and the VLBI network, and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope.


The director of undergraduate studies for the concentration is Professor David Charbonneau. His Observatory office is 60 Garden Street, Room P-343 (617-496-6515); his email address is A map showing the location of the Observatory complex can be found at the Center for Astrophysics website. The astronomy department office is located at the same address in room C-25 (617-495-3752). Online information about the astronomy department is available at the department's website . If you are interested in study abroad, please contact the director of undergraduate studies.


Non-exempt areas:

Exempt areas:

Foreign Cultures

Quantitative Reasoning

†Historical Study A

Science A

†Historical Study B

Science B

†Literature and Arts A

ONE of the areas marked †.

Literature and Arts B

†Literature and Arts C

Moral Reasoning

Social Analysis

For more information on fulfilling the Core requirement, see the Core Curriculum Requirement.

All students—regardless of concentration—planning to graduate under the requirements of the Program in General Education must complete one letter-graded course in each of the eight categories in General Education. The Class of 2013 is the first to enter the College under these requirements. Students who entered Harvard College in September 2008 or earlier are expected to fulfill the requirements of the Core Curriculum, but will be permitted to switch to the Program in General Education if such a change is possible and advisable given their overall schedule and plan of study. For more information on the requirements of the Program in General Education and the possibility of switching to it, please see The Program in General Education in Chapter 2 and the General Education website.


Number of Concentrators as of December













Astrophysics + another field






Another field + Astrophysics