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What is astrophysics?

Astrophysics is an interdisciplinary science where the principles of physics are applied to astronomy in order to study astronomical objects and phenomena.

Traditional astrophysics is concerned with studying the formation and evolution of the universe, as well as the physical properties of the forms of matter present in the universe; that is, the composition, density, temperature, and other characteristics of stars, galaxies, interstellar and intergalactic mediums, etc. However, in recent times, astrophysics has taken on great significance for determining new laws of physics that cannot be investigated in terrestrial laboratories.

Astrophysics is currently the field of physics that requires greater skills in the various disciplines of physics to carry it out.

What are the branches of astrophysics?

Astrophysics can be divided into three main branches:

  1. Observational astrophysics (or astronomy): deals with the study of the observable universe. The main observations are carried out on electromagnetic radiation (photons), cosmic rays, and neutrinos. Applications of this branch include:
    • Radio astronomy.
    • Ultraviolet astronomy.
    • X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy.
    • Optical astronomy.
    • TeV astronomy.
  2. Theoretical astrophysics: most astrophysical phenomena are not observable; that is why astrophysics turns to the development of theoretical models that represent the processes studied in an ideal manner. This is achieved through theories and physical laws already in place, and the aim is to develop predictions and simulations.
    The main difficulties in this regard include:
    • Reproducing models in terrestrial laboratories, given their extreme measurements (too big, too hot, etc.).
    • The incompatibility between terrestrial physical knowledge and astronomical models and objects of study.
  3. Laboratory astrophysics: in a certain way, it could be said that every study pertaining to physics belongs to the field of laboratory astrophysics; however, some topics are mainly or exclusively of interest to this branch. These are the measures:
    • Spectroscopic.
    • Nuclear.
    • Those related to cosmic dust.

When did astrophysics emerge?

The origins of astrophysics go back to antiquity. The first known civilizations observed and recorded the movements of celestial bodies like the stars, the planets, and the Moon. Since its inception, it was separated from the study of terrestrial physics, as it was understood to operate with different materials and dynamics. Plato (428-348 BC) theorized that the celestial region was essentially constituted by fire, while Aristotle (384-322 BC) thought that its main component was ether.

The development of astrophysics as a modern scientific discipline, however, began in the 19th century, when scientists like Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler established the laws of gravitation and planetary motion. Since then, astrophysics has evolved and become highly specialized. Some of its applications include atomic and molecular astrophysics, bioastrophysics, stellar astrophysics, etc.

What is the highest award that recognizes advances in astrophysics?

The main discoveries and milestones achieved in the field of astrophysics compete for the Nobel Prize in Physics; this discipline competes with other branches of physics. Some of the most recent awards presented to astrophysics include:

2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for Takaaki Kajita (Japan) and Arthur B. McDonald (Canada) for the discovery of neutrino oscillation.

2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne (United States) for detecting gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity; these indicate the collision of black holes in stellar masses.

2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for three scientists: Reinhard Genzel (Germany) and Andrea Ghez (United States) for proving the existence of black holes according to the theory of general relativity, and Roger Penrose (United Kingdom) for showing that black holes interfere with the orbits of nearby stars.

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