For students interested in pursuing the BSc Astronomy degree

What is astronomy?

Astronomy is the study of the night sky, but it is also the science of our origins. The big questions that astronomers try to answer are ultimately all about explaining why the world we live in looks the way it does. For example: How did the Earth form? How do stars form? Why are there different types of galaxies? How did the Universe begin? In short: How did we get here?

Astronomy is a multidisciplinary subject that involves physics, mathematics, statistics, computer programming, data science and engineering. Astronomy research in South Africa has grown at a rapid rate due to large investments made by the South African government and the construction of local state of the art facilities such as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the MeerKAT radio telescope. In addition to its cultural value, throughout history the study of astronomy has driven advances in mathematics, science, and technology. Examples of such innovations include the global positioning system (GPS) used for satellite navigation, wireless internet, light detectors in digital cameras, and techniques for medical imaging (e.g., non-invasive methods for detecting tumours).

The MeerKAT telescope: Image Credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

Astronomy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), astronomy research is carried out within the Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC). ARC contributes to South Africa’s knowledge economy through its research, building local skills and capacity by producing high- calibre graduates. ARC’s research and teaching programme is driven by its world-renowned academic staff, postdoctoral researchers, postgraduate students, affiliated researchers, and visitors. Our astronomy staff play key roles in a number of high-profile international collaborations, such as the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, Simons Observatory, various MeerKAT Key Science Programmes, and the UKZN-led Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX). We also have a large group pursuing theoretical work in relativistic astrophysics and gravity. Our postgraduate students receive excellent training as a result of working in this environment. Our scientists have published ground-breaking research findings that have made international headlines and led to numerous awards.

UKZN’s HIRAX telescope

The HIRAX telescope

UKZN’s HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment) telescope is primed to make exciting scientific discoveries. This radio interferometer array, located at the Square Kilometre site in the Karoo, is planned to consist of 1024 six-metre radio telescopes operating at 400 – 800 MHz. Using HIRAX, we aim to understand the nature of Dark Energy, a strange phenomenon that causes the accelerated expansion of the universe. We also hope to locate and understand the sources of mysterious Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs)- millisecond-long flashes of radio waves from space that were first seen in 2007. Our students working on HIRAX receive training in numerous skills including telescope instrumentation, hardware design, and Big Data analysis.


Professional astronomers have problem-solving techniques and skills which are valuable in a large number of industries. Therefore, in addition to astronomy and academia, students who have studied astronomy find employment in a variety of sectors such as data science, financial services, IT, telecommunications, and at companies such as Google, Amazon and Netflix.

The Astronomy Major

We deliver the Astronomy Major as an option within UKZN’s BSc Mathematical Sciences degree programme, and recommend that students work towards a dual-major in Physics and Astronomy. The structure of the Astronomy Major is listed below:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
1. MATH130 (Introduction to Calculus)
2. MATH140 (Calculus and Linear Algebra)
3. PHYS113 (Mechanics)
4. PHYS114 (Thermodynamics and Electromagnetism)
1. ASTR203 (Stars and Planets)
2. ASTR204 (Galaxies and Cosmology)
3. MATH212 (Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra)
4. MATH251 (Further Calculus and Introductory Analysis)
1. ASTR301 (Astronomy Beyond the Visible)
2. ASTR303 (Fluids in Astrophysics)
3. ASTR304 (Observational Project)
4. Either MATH327 (Numerical Analysis) or MATH344 (Tensor Analysis)

Prospective students should apply via the Central Applications Office and select the BSc M-Stream degree at the UKZN Westville Campus in order to study the Astronomy Major. Students may transfer to the Major at second year level, if they have passed the necessary first year Physics and Mathematics courses. At the BSc Honours level, UKZN offers the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP), in addition to Honours programmes in Physics and Applied Mathematics.

UKZN Astronomy undergraduate students at the SARAO bursary conference in 2019

Scholarships for BSc & BSc Honours Studies

ARC engages with undergraduates beyond their undergraduate coursework on activities such as mentoring, specialised tutoring, and vacation research projects. Many students who have participated in this programme have excelled in their courses and have received numerous accolades. A few notable laurels from our postgraduate students include Ms Sinenhlanhla Sikhosana who won the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award as well as the L’Oréal-UNESCO South African young talents research grant, Ms Chevarra Hansraj who won the S2A3 medal and Ms Tankiso Moso who won the DST-Albertina Sisulu Fellowship.

ARC offers undergraduate scholarships for astronomy studies, funded by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), to Grade 12 learners and current university students. These cover the cost of tuition, residence fees and other study- related expenses for the duration of the BSc and BSc Honours degrees. Suitable candidates with a history of academic excellence, particularly in Mathematics and Physical Science, are encouraged to apply.

Postgraduate Studies

A vital component of UKZN’s astronomy research programme is the training of MSc and PhD students, who work with some of the world’s leading experts in various fields of astrophysics. Many of our students are supported by scholarships from SARAO and the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP), and work in our main research areas: cosmology; large- scale structure and galaxy clusters; the epoch of re-ionisation; galaxy formation and evolution; and relativistic astrophysics (including the study of compact objects such as neutron stars and black holes). We encourage prospective students to contact potential MSc or PhD supervisors directly, well in advance of the yearly deadline for scholarship applications as advertised on the National Research Foundation’s website.