Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences – and yet also one of the most modern. The Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg is proof of this. The researchers here decipher the mysteries of the universe with high-tech instruments, constructing clever add-ons and detectors for telescopes and satellites which examine the light from cosmic sources according to all the laws of physics. Infant stars and the birth of planetary systems are but two objects of their scientific curiosity. “Is Earth the only inhabited place in the universe?” is one of their burning research questions. The Max Planck astronomers also travel through the depths of space and time, investigating active galaxies and quasars to gain an idea of the beginning and the development of today’s richly structured universe.


Königstuhl 17
69117 Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 528-0
Fax: +49 6221 528-246

PhD opportunities

This institute has an International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS):

IMPRS for Astronomy and Cosmic Physics at the University of Heidelberg

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Department Planet and Star Formation


Department Galaxies and Cosmology

Migration of stars

Oscillations from the Milky Way disk seem to relocate stars to large vertical distances from their place of birth

The universe out of the supercomputer

Computer simulations show the formation of galaxies with unprecedented precision

Research highlights from our yearbook

The yearbook of the Max Planck Society illustrates the research carried out at our institutes. We selected a few reports from our 2017 yearbook to illustrate the variety and diversity of topics and projects.

Shedding light on the cosmic web

Astronomers use the light of double quasars to measure the structure of the universe

Earth-like planet near Proxima Centauri

Astronomers discover a celestial body in the habitable zone around our nearest fixed star


He loves basketball and literature, but his real passion is cosmology. Joe Hennawi uses telescopes and supercomputers to investigate the largest structures in the universe at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg – in a research group called ENIGMA. Their aim is nothing less than to unravel the mysteries of the cosmic web.

The universe has billions and billions of galaxies, but only one that we can explore star by star in all its dimensions: our Milky Way. It can be thought of as a “model organism” for the formation and evolution of galaxies and is thus a key research topic in cosmology, and the research focus of the team working with Hans-Walter Rix, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. The researchers recently found indications that quite a number of earlier ideas about our galaxy have to be revised.

Magnetic fields spanning 100,000 light-years permeate entire galaxies and envelop their central black holes. Researchers working together with Rainer Beck, Silke Britzen and Sui Ann Mao at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn are teasing the secrets out of these invisible force fields.

Neither Star nor Planet

3/2014 Physics & Astronomy

They are often eclipsed by more attractive topics, like black holes or exoplanets. Even the name itself is less than sensational: brown dwarfs. But Viki Joergens and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg have gained fascinating insights in this research field.

When the universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago, there was initially onlyradiation. A few hundred million years later, however, the space was filled with galaxies –tremendously productive star factories that don’t fit quite so well with the image of agradual cosmic evolution. Researchers like Fabian Walter from the Max Planck Institutefor Astronomy in Heidelberg are attempting to illuminate a dark epoch of the universe.

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Bringing the building blocks of life down to Earth, from space

2018 Dmitry Semenov; Thomas K. Henning

Astronomy Astrophysics

Astronomers from McMaster University and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have completed calculations that lead to a consistent scenario for the emergence of life on Earth, based on astronomical, geological, chemical and biological models. In this scenario, life forms a mere few hundred million years after Earth’s surface was cool enough for liquid water; the essential building blocks for life were formed in space during the formation of the solar system, and delivered to warm little ponds on Earth by meteorites.


Ripples in Cosmic Web Measured Using Rare Double Quasars

2018 Rorai, Alberto; Hennawi, Joseph F.; Onorbe, José

Astronomy Astrophysics

Astronomers believe that matter in intergalactic space is distributed in a vast network of interconnected filamentary structures – the cosmic web. Nearly all the atoms in the Universe reside in this web, left over from the Big Bang. A team led by a team of the MPI for Astronomy has made the first measurements of small-scale fluctuations in the cosmic web just 2 billion years after the Big Bang. These measurements were enabled by a novel technique using pairs of quasars to probe the cosmic web along adjacent lines of sight. They promise to help astronomers reconstruct the epoch of reionization.


Gigantic X-shaped structure throws (infrared) light on galactic history

2017 Ness, Melissa; Lang, Dustin

Astronomy Astrophysics

Two astronomers have produced the first direct images of a gigantic X-shaped distribution of stars in the center of the Milky Way. The collaboration began when Dustin Lang (University of Toronto) tweeted an image he had recently created. From the tweet, Melissa Ness (MPIA) recognized the image's significance for reconstructing the history of our home galaxy. The X-shaped distribution indicates that the bulge of stars surrounding the center of the galactic disk was formed through dynamical interactions of stars, not by the merger of smaller galaxies with our own.


Planet found in habitable zone around nearest star

2017 Kürster, Martin

Astronomy Astrophysics

Astronomers have discovered a planet orbiting the nearest star outside our solar system, Proxima Centauri. The planet, designated Proxima Centauri b, is in the habitable zone of its star, where liquid water could exist. The discovery is the result of a patient search using the radial velocity method, which searches for tiny wobbles of a star caused by an orbiting planet. In addition to newly acquired data, the analysis uses spectra taken by MPIA astronomer Martin Kürster and colleagues between 2000 and 2007.


First Surface map of a Brown Dwarf Shows Extraterrestrial Weather Patterns

2016 Crossfield, Ian; Biller, Beth; Schlieder, Joshua; Deacon, Niall; Bonnefoy, Mickaël; Buenzli, Esther; Henning, Thomas; Brandner, Wolfgang; Goldman, Bertrand; Kopytova, Taisiy; Mancini, Luigi; Cicer, Simon; Bailer-Jones, Coryn A. L.

Astronomy Astrophysics

Astronomers have presented the first detailed study of the atmospheric features – the extraterrestrial wea ther patterns – of a brown dwarf (an intermediate object between planet and star). The results include the first surface map of a brown dwarf and measurements at different wavelengths probing its atmosphere at different depths. They mark the beginning of an era in which astronomers will be able to compare models for cloud formation on brown dwarfs – and, eventually, on giant gas planets in distant star systems – with observations.

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