Astronomy and Astrophysics, Cosmology

The aim of astrophysics is to study our Universe and the galaxies, stars, and planets therein with physical methods and to understand their origin and evolution. At the observatory almost the entire spectrum of modern astrophysics is covered in research and teaching.

Astronomers and cosmologists read the night sky like a book from which we learn about the past, present and future of the Universe. Observations of our galaxy are revealing how stars are born, how they evolve and how they migrate within the Milky Way. We are beginning to understand how planets form around those stars and what kinds of worlds they evolve into and we are even starting to get a glimpse of the origin of life itself. And when we look beyond our immediate cosmic neighborhood, more wonders await: Our expanding Universe is filled with a rich web of structures, comprised of gigantic clusters of galaxies and even larger galaxy filaments and voids which have been seeded by quantum fluctuations in the hot, dense cosmos right after the big bang. This cosmos and its evolution constitute a marvelous, one-time experiment that provides researchers at LMU with unexpected insights in almost all branches of modern physics.

Astrophysics at LMU

The city of Munich, and its Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in particular, are among the largest and most successful centers for astrophysical and cosmological research worldwide. Four different research institutes - the LMU, the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA), the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) and the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) - create a diverse research environment covering all frontiers of modern astrophysics and cosmology.

Within this closely connected network, LMU hosts astrophysicists and cosmologists at two different sites. The University Observatory (Universitätssternwarte) has a history of over 200 years of innovation and excellence in the science of the cosmos. It currently consists of five chairs with a focus on Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology, Theoretical and Numerical Astrophysics, Cosmology and Structure Formation, Theoretical Astrophysics of Extrasolar Planets, and the intersection of Astrophysics, Cosmology, and Artificial Intelligence. In addition, the Department of Physics hosts two chairs working on theoretical aspects of Cosmology and (Astro-)Particle Physics.

Together, those sites host a number of research groups:

Full spectrum photograph of the historical Fraunhofer dome and Meridian circle building at University Observatory Munich

© Christian Obermeier

Formation of Stars, Planets, and Life

Professor Til Birnstiel and his group are investigating the formation of planets and the structure and dynamics of planet-forming disks using state-of-the art simulations. Their main focus is on the processes in protoplanetary disks that explain how microscopic particles can grow to the size of planets and how these effects shape the observational appearance of disks that can be observed with current observatories such as ALMA or SPHERE@VLT.

Professor Barbara Ercolano and her group are pioneers in the field of star and planet formation, in particular, on how those two processes are linked via the formation of protoplanetary disks. She is leading a DFG Research Unit on protoplanetary disks that are on the verge of dispersal, so called transition disks, as witnesses and probes of these processes.

Professor Kevin Heng and his newly arrived chair work on the signatures that different processes of planet evolution - in particular, the existence of life - leave in planetary atmospheres. In addition, they develop innovative statistical and machine learning techniques to detect those signatures in observational data.

Professor Thomas Preibisch and his group study star formation processes and investigate how young, newly born stars and their circumstellar disks evolve and are affected by the feedback from their environment in open clusters and OB associations. They are using observations from X-ray to far-infrared wavelengths to study stellar populations, star formation histories, triggering of star formation, and the evolution of protoplanetary disks around the young stars.

Carina Nebula as seen by the Herschel Space Telescope

© ESA/PACS/SPIRE/Thomas Preibisch, Universitäts-Sternwarte München, LMU

Extragalactic Astrophysics

Scientists at the Chair for Observational and Experimental Astronomy led by Professor Ralf Bender are deriving new insights into the origin and evolution of galaxies, their black holes and dark matter properties. Besides instrument development for ground and space observatories (ESO VLT: KMOS, ESO ELT: MICADO, ESA: Euclid), the group also operates LMU’s own 2m telescope on Mount Wendelstein in the Bavarian Alps.

Professor Harald Lesch is a world leading expert on radiative and high-energy processes in the cosmos. He is also Germany’s most influential public communicator of science and an outspoken advocate of action on climate change.

Wendelstein observations of Triangulum Galaxy

Wendelstein observations of Triangulum Galaxy

© Wendelstein Observatory, LMU

Computational Astrophysics

Scientists at the Chair for Theoretical and Numerical Astrophysics led by Professor Andreas Burkert, the Computational Astrophysics (CAST) are developing state-of-the-art simulations of cosmological and astrophysical phenomena. The focus especially lies on the interplay between the condensation of molecular clouds into stars and associated feedback processes, the link between formation and evolution of AGN and galaxy evolution and their imprint on the intergalactic medium (IGM) or inter cluster medium (ICM).

This way, they investigate how the laws of physics on small scales drive our understanding of the formation of structures in the universe with high precision, creating simulations of cosmic structure formation that are among the largest and most realistic in the world.

Magneticum pathfinder collage

© magneticum.org

Data-driven Cosmology

The newly installed Chair for Astrophysics, Cosmology and Artificial Intelligence aims to construct a statistical model that integrates all signatures of cosmic structure available to us. To build this model, Prof. Daniel Gruen and his group are developing and employing the latest approaches of analysing and interpreting cosmological data, including innovative machine learning techniques as well as highly advanced theoretical techniques to understand cosmic structure formation.

At the Chair for Cosmology and Structure Formation, Professor Joseph Mohr and his team are addressing questions about the origins of cosmic structures, the nature of dark matter and the causes of the cosmic acceleration using studies of cosmic structures, including the Universe’s most massive objects – galaxy clusters – as well as the large scale structure and populations of galaxies and AGN. Professor Mohr and his team employ data across the electromagnetic spectrum together with weak gravitational lensing and numerical simulations to fully understand and use these structures for cosmological analyses.

The University Observatory's gravitational lensing research group, led by Dr. Stella Seitz, uses the strong and weak distortions that are imprinted on the images of distant light sources by foreground gravitational fields to reveal the mass distributions, e.g. of galaxies and clusters of galaxies and to measure the statistical properties of the large scale structure’s dark matter field as it evolves with the Universe.

Researchers in the Physical Cosmology Group, led by Prof. Dr. Jochen Weller, at the University Observatory, are confronting modern cosmological theories with observations. They have a strong research program in exploiting galaxy clusters and cosmic voids, but also explore more general probes of the large-scale structure and the cosmic microwave background. One of our main motivations is to understand the nature of the cosmic acceleration in the Universe. Here we try to constrain theoretical models from standard dark energy, coupled scalar fields to theories which extend Einstein's gravity at large distances. Furthermore we have a strong research program in machine learning applications in astrophysics, but also apply these methods in medical physics and string theory.

Galaxy Cluster MACS J0416.1-2403

Galaxy Cluster MACS J0416.1-2403

© ESA/Hubble

Theoretical Cosmology

At the Chair for Astroparticle Physics and Cosmology and at the Chair of Theoretical Particle Physics, world leading theoretical physicists and cosmologists work out the foundations of our understanding of the cosmos. Led by Professors Gerhard Buchalla, Georgi Dvali, Stefan Hofmann, Viatcheslav Mukhanov, and Ivo Sachs, they are revealing how astronomical and cosmological phenomena such as the Big Bang, cosmic inflation, dark matter, the accelerated expansion of the Universe, black holes and others tell us about the fundamental laws of physics.

Cosmic Microwave Background polarization as seen by the Planck satellite

© ESA

Wendelstein-Observatory

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Professors

Prof. Dr. Ralf Bender
Emergence and development of galaxies / Dark matter and gravitational lenses / Black holes in galactic cores

Prof. Dr. Tilman Birnstiel
Planet Formation / Protoplanetary Disks and Their Evolution / Computational Astrophysics

Prof. Dr. Andreas Burkert
Computational Astrophysics / Cosmology and dark matter / Emergence and development of galaxies / Emergence of stars and planets

Prof. Dr. Georgi Dvali
String theory / Elementary particle physics / Cosmology and astrophysics

Prof. Dr. Barbara Ercolano
Formation of stars and planets / Radiative transfer / Computational Astrophysics

Prof. Dr. Daniel Gruen
Extragalactic surveys / cosmology / gravitational lensing / artificial intelligence

Prof. Dr. Harald Lesch
Cosmic electrodynamics / Particle acceleration at TeV energy levels in active galactic cores / Coherent radiation processes in cosmic systems

Prof. Dr. Joseph Mohr
Nature of the cosmic acceleration / Evolution of large scale structure / Galaxy cluster formation and evolution

Prof. Dr. Viatcheslav Mukhanov
General Theory of Relativity / Cosmology, Inflation / Black Holes

Prof. Dr. Thomas Preibisch
Young stars and star formation / X-ray observations / Infrared interferometry

Prof. Dr. Jochen Weller
Cosmology and Dark energy / Large scale structure and galaxy clusters / Cosmic microwave background

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