USNO United States Naval Observatory

Operating Status Summer 2023:

On-site (The internship will be performed entirely at the lab)

Student Requirements:

Interns must be U.S. citizens. (Permanent residents are not eligible but dual citizens are welcome to apply.)


USNO’s mission is to determine the positions and motions of celestial bodies, motions of the Earth, and precise time; provide astronomical and timing data required by the Navy and other components of the Department of Defense for navigation, precise positioning, and command, control, and communications; make these data available to other government agencies and to the general public; and conduct relevant research and perform such other functions as may be directed by higher authority.

About the Lab

Established in 1830, The U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) is one of the oldest scientific organizations in the Federal Government. The observatory provides astronomical and timing data required by the Navy and other components of the Department of Defense for navigation, precise positioning, and command, control, and communications. USNO is one of the preeminent authorities in the world in astrometry, Earth rotation measurement, precise time, fundamental reference frames, and solar system dynamics. USNO is a relatively small institution, with a total scientific and technical staff of about 60 in Washington and just over a dozen in Flagstaff. The scientific and technical staff is all civilian, with a high proportion of Ph.D.s in astronomy and physics.

Astronomical research and development observations are carried out primarily at the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS) in Flagstaff, AZ. NOFS has an active program of astronomical research that directly addresses the needs of USNO and its mission to the Navy (and more widely the DoD), as well as more traditional astronomical research. At NOFS, we do science aimed at determining and deriving more accurate and precise position of celestial object, time and time interval, and Earth orientation. This involves exploring and testing new instrumentation, new astronomical observing techniques, and precise position and motion observations of stars and Earth-orbiting satellites. We also do astronomical research that corresponds to the research interests of NOFS astronomers. Often, by design, our research projects overlap with or can be applied to the mission needs of USNO. NOFS currently has a staff of nine astronomers plus about that many again of engineering, admin, and IT staff. NOFS optical telescopes are in use nearly every clear night, pursuing our various research and mission projects. NOFS astronomers often collaborate with astronomers at other research and academic institutions.

What is unique about this lab?

USNO Flagstaff has four, meter-class astronomical telescopes, as well as a variety of astronomical imaging cameras, many of which were designed and built at USNO—Flagstaff. Also, Flagstaff itself, being a mountain town, is a very enjoyable place to spend a summer.

About the Internship

A SEAP intern typically works with a mentor (sometimes two), who is an astronomer or an engineer, on an astronomy research project or a telescope engineering project that is of interest to the intern. An intern often works with a large number of telescope images, learning various data processing and information extraction techniques, as well as learning relevant topics and techniques from astronomy, mathematics, physics, and/or programming needed for their project.

Given the wide variety of things we do, a wide range of student interests are applicable for a successful internship. We have had students whose interests included physics, mathematics, engineering, robotics, computational science, and even astronomy—as well as "not really sure yet.” Basically, we are looking for students with a curiosity and passion for one or more STEM-related subjects.

What will I do any given day as an intern at this lab?

Interns participate in lab functions in a number of ways including (but not limited to) assisting mentors with guided research projects, attending seminars or conferences, group mentoring sessions, and lab tours.

What majors and disciplines are a good fit for interning at this lab?

The primary subjects of interest include:

  • Algebra
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Astronomy
  • Calculus
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Geometry
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanics
  • Physical Science
  • Physics
  • Programming
  • Statistics and Probability

What will I learn as an intern at this lab?

You will learn topics and techniques in astronomy that are relevant to your research project. You will experience how modern astronomical research is done on a day-to-day basis.

What kinds of projects do interns at this lab participate in?

Searching for unseen companions in white dwarf eclipsing binary systems: from precise, high-cadence optical photometry, measure the timing of eclipses and compare to ephemeris predictions. Periodic variations in the eclipse times indicate gravitational perturbations to the binary orbit that are caused by an unseen companion (a large planet or a brown dwarf star).

Artificial intelligence processing of infrared imagery: learn and develop AI techniques and apply them to automating bad-data detection and characterization in infrared telescope survey images.

A novel algorithm to compute the minimum distance between two confocal orbits: develop a fast algorithm for calculating the critical points of the distance function between two orbits. (The student for this project earned 9th place in the national Intel Science Talent Search science fair.)

A unique perspective on asteroid perturbations of planetary orbits: investigate and characterize planetary perturbations, due to the asteroids, as a statistical "noise" problem, using restricted three-body numerical integrations.

Fractal dynamics of planetary capture: numerically explore the complex orbital dynamics of the gravitational capture of an asteroid by a planet (such as Jupiter) — dynamics which exists on a fractal geometric structure in phase space.


Current (2021) astronomical research areas here at the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station include low-mass stars, white dwarf stars, binary and triple star systems, surveys of the chemical properties and structure of our Milky Way galaxy, detection of unseen companions in eclipsing binary systems, and intermediate mass black holes. That's all on, largely, the observational side of things. On the theoretical/computational side are projects involving solar system dynamics.