Astronomy is often called the oldest science -- in many ways, it is also one of the newest! Astronomers today rely on cutting-edge technology and computer programming skills to generate and analyze the enormous data sets we use to examine the universe around us. Our business is studying the physics of objects like exoplanets, stars, gas, black holes, and galaxies in the observable universe, which is why we are sometimes referred to as astrophysicists. Because the objects we study are too distant and too large to bring back samples or replicate them here on earth, astronomy is very different from most other experimental laboratory sciences. Astronomers that work with data are called observers, as the only experiments we can run consist of pointing our telescopes at different parts of the sky to gather information about new objects that will test our hypotheses. We rely on the information we can infer just from light (color, temperature, velocity, and chemical composition) to get insight into the formation and evolution of objects ranging from extrasolar planets to stars to entire galaxies. Scientists who study the surfaces of planets in our solar system are more typically found in geology programs, while scientists who specialize in the study of upper atmospheres and magnetospheres of solar system planets, and the regions between these planets, are generally housed in space physics groups.
The University of Kansas Observational Astronomy Group includes five full-time astronomy professors: Dr. Ian Crossfield (Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics), Dr. Jennifer Delgado (Astronomy Education Research), Dr. Allison Kirkpatrick (Quasars and Galaxy Evolution), Dr. Elisabeth Mills (Interstellar Medium and Galaxy Centers), and Dr. Greg Rudnick (Galaxy Formation and Evolution), as well as two adjunct faculty (Dr. Ryan Maderak, faculty at Benedictine College, Atchison and Dr. Karen Camarda, faculty at Washburn University in Topeka). KU astronomy research spans the universe: from planets around other stars near the sun, and the gas and dust surrounding the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, to distant black holes that are as bright as a billion suns, and the formation of the earliest galaxies that are some of the most distant objects we can see. Astronomers at KU use telescopes all over the world: Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory, and the Gemini telescopes in Chile and on Mauna Kea, the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in the high northern desert of Chile. At KU, we even have access to a telescope of our very own: the 1.0m telescope at Mt. Laguna Observatory, in collaboration with San Diego State University. However, astronomy at KU isn’t limited to the surface of the earth: we also use some telescopes that are literally out of this world, flying through the stratosphere like SOFIA, a telescope on a Boeing 747, or orbiting far above our planet like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
In addition to the observational astronomy group at KU, there are a number of active departmental research groups led by faculty that focus on related areas of astrophysics. Dr. Hume Feldman, Dept. Chair and Dr. Sergei Shandarin comprise the Cosmology group, which attempts to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe through computer modelling and comparisons between simulations and the results from ongoing extragalactic surveys, while Dr. Adrian Melott, formerly of the Cosmology group, is now devoted to full-time investigations in Astrobiology. Dr. Tom Cravens uses NASA support and collaborations to study the plasma physics of the solar system as represented by a mixture of cometary and planetary objects. This observational work is complemented by the theoretical work in areas of plasma astrophysics led by Dr. Misha Medvedev. On the experimental side, astroparticle physics has also been the focus of Dr. Dave Besson. Dr. Besson is part of a multinational research effort at the South Pole to build and operate the Askaryan Radio Array, a large-scale radio-detection instrument that will identify radio waves cast off from high-energy neutrinos far underneath the Antarctic ice shelf.