Why you want a CS + Astronomy degree

4/1/2024 Emma Maxwell

Written by Emma Maxwell

CS + X series by Women in Computer Science at Illinois

The need for computational astronomy

Space. The final frontier.

Just because the Space Race is technically over doesn't mean that space science and exploration have been halted. NASA, SpaceX, and many other organizations continue reaching for the stars.

The intersection of astronomy, computer science, and astrophysics has been prevalent since space travel stopped being a dream and became a reality decades ago.

Don’t you want to get in on the action?

Why Computational Astronomy is Important

Almost every subfield of modern astronomy, by its very nature, requires some level of computational applications. Astronomers and astrophysicists deal with incredibly large datasets that no human could analyze by hand in a feasible amount of time. Knowledge of computer programming is essential to making sense of the amount of information being collected about the cosmos. The hardware produced for astronomy and astrophysics also requires computational knowledge. Someone has to program the Mars rovers so they know how to move and analyze samples, someone has to receive the infrared information from the James Webb telescope, and someone has to program the many simulations needed in a field where one can rarely touch what they are studying; why couldn’t it be you?

Opportunities at Illinois

At Illinois, a groundbreaking degree in Computer Science and astronomy (CS+Astro) is offered through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in collaboration with the Computer Science department at The Grainger College of Engineering. This unique undergraduate curriculum trains students in astronomy and computer science and the intersection of the two fields.

Anika Khandavalli, a current freshman in Computer Science + Astronomy, walked WCS through the program here at Illinois.

The CS+Astro curriculum begins with introductory computer science, astronomy, and astrophysics courses. After their first year, students take a course called “Computing in Astronomy” (ASTR 310), which introduces the foundational computational skills required for a career in astronomy or astrophysics, including Python libraries like Astropy.

In addition, almost all of the 300- and 400-level astronomy courses require some programming, mostly in Python with data science applications. Khandavalli noted that this was a difference from the CS core, which is mostly in Java and C++; she appreciated that by getting a CS+Astro degree, she is being trained in a wide variety of popular programming languages.

Khandavalli advised students to “lean into the fact that you’re doing CS+X.” Computer science is an interdisciplinary field that can be applied to almost every other subject. Still, by doing CS+Astro, Khandavalli highlighted that students “have a built-in bestie for CS.” Courses at Illinois offer many options to explore how computer science is applied and used to enhance the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.

Khandavalli stressed that students have many other opportunities to grow their skills in computational astronomy in addition to coursework that focuses on the intersection of computer science and space studies.

Illinois is home to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), a leader in providing high-performance and high-speed computing infrastructure to researchers and other scientific entities nationwide. The astronomy department frequently uses the NCSA since the scale of their research and datasets often requires computational speed only the NCSA can provide. Khandavalli encourages students to reach out to their astronomy professors if they are interested in getting involved with the NCSA since it's likely many of them are already doing research there!

Beyond research, Illinois is home to many astronomy-focused registered student organizations (RSOs), always looking for new members! Among these are the Illinois Space Society, the Astrobiology Club--which discusses the possibility of extraterrestrial life--the Astronomical Society, and more! You can always explore student groups at Illinois.

What You Can Do with Computational Astronomy

Students with a degree in computational astronomy have many options. They can use the computer science portion of their degree to pursue work in technology like anyone else with a technical degree; a degree in CS+Astro prepares students well for work in software engineering, technology consulting, and more. But there are also many unique opportunities for computational astronomers. Khandavalli highlighted that students are a "perfect implant” for “anything dealing with the space industry right now.” While many student internships are solely computer science-based, candidates with a strong background in astronomy and astrophysics will be much more appealing to space-centered organizations.

Graduates of the CS+Astro program can go on to work with NASA, SpaceX, and many others, developing technologies for Mars rovers, astral simulations, satellite detection, celestial cartography, and more.

The human race will never stop exploring the stars until we have discovered every inch of our ever-expanding universe. Pursuing computational astronomy and computational astrophysics prepares you to advance human knowledge of the cosmos beyond your wildest dreams.

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:

Articles courtesy of the Illinois Women in Computer Science student group at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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This story was published April 1, 2024.