Astronomy / Astrophysics / Space Science

What is an astronomer?

Astronomers (as well as astrophysicists and space scientists) study objects and environments beyond the surface and atmosphere of Earth. What they learn often has implications for understanding how the Earth came to be as it is. They may use telescopes, ground-based detectors, or satellites to gather data about the conditions of objects in space, or of space itself, from as far away as the most distant quasar (billions of light years away) to as nearby as the space in Earth's orbit (200 miles up). They apply the laws of nature, often assisted by numerical "models", or simulations programmed into a computer, to make sense of this data. They attempt to answer such questions as, "What is the age of the universe, and will it continue to expand forever? How was the distribution of elements that we find on Earth (including the atoms in our own bodies) produced? How did our solar system form? Do solar systems capable of supporting life exist around other stars? What is going on inside the stars and at the violent centers of galaxies? Can we predict when a star will explode as a supernova? Can we predict when the next asteroid or comet will pass near the Earth or even impact the Earth?"

Dr. Catherine (Caty) Pilachowski working in the console room of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

What makes a great astronomer?

A strong curiosity about nature is a prime characteristic of an astronomer, along with the ability to imagine and visualize conditions much different than those of everyday experience. The universe presents us with examples of phenomena occurring at the extremes (both high and low) of pressure, temperature, density, and gravity that we cannot reproduce (at least not easily!) in laboratories on Earth. Since technology is progressing so rapidly, it is important for you to be versatile. You must be willing to learn quickly and explore new ways of doing your work. Since your discoveries are much more useful to others when they are communicated, good writing and speaking skills are essential. It also helps immensely to be patient and persistent and to be organized enough to work on several projects at once, as many projects will take years to complete. You should also enjoy working with others; many projects are done in teams.

What is life as an astronomer like?

One of the best aspects of being an astronomer is the variety of tasks that astronomers do each day. Most astronomers have quite a bit of freedom in planning their own research projects and approaches.

The tasks could be preparing lessons and teaching classes, supervising students, building equipment, developing ideas or analyzing data on paper or on a computer, writing journal articles, discussing ideas and giving seminars at your institution or at national and international conferences, serving on committees in your department or for professional associations, reading journal articles, and evaluating the research of others before it is published. Electronic mail has become the medium of choice to discuss your research and plan projects or conferences with colleagues from around the globe. Most major journals, reports, and astronomical data are now accessible from your desktop computer using the Internet.

Note that very few astronomers spend large amounts of time looking through a telescope. Most operate telescopes from a control room (as in the photo) or even from their computer at home via the Internet. Typical astronomers only spend one or two weeks each year observing, and the rest of their research time analyzing their data.

The rewards of being an astronomer are a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and even jubilation at finding the missing evidence to support a theory, or putting pieces of data together to give you a new insight into the nature of the universe. The work environment can be wonderful - astronomy is still a relatively small field, and those who work in your area of specialization form an even smaller community. It is fun to travel to remote observing sites and to conferences and to interact with astronomers from around the world.

How do I become an astronomer? Spacesuit

In high school take as much math and science as you can, including physics, chemistry, pre-calculus, and computer science. Do not neglect English or public speaking opportunities, such as speech or debate, because you will spend much of your time writing grant proposals and journal articles and giving talks at seminars and conferences about your latest results.

In college, you can major in physics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, or earth science. If you plan to be an observational astronomer or build satellites, take electronics or electrical engineering as well as drafting classes. Be sure to take some science courses outside your major. Interpretation of astrophysical phenomena requires an extensive knowledge of many fields of science, particularly physics. Do not neglect courses in languages and the humanities; these will enhance your communication skills and versatility.

Most jobs in astronomy require a master's or Ph.D. degree. A master's degree takes a year or two beyond college and may lead to a job in a planetarium, teaching at a community college, as a support person or data analyst at an observatory or research institute, or perhaps as a science writer for a newspaper or magazine. A Ph.D. requires a thesis on independent research and is almost always required to become a professor at a college or university. Most professors are expected to carry out research programs and supervise students in addition to teaching. Many astronomers work at observatories (such as the Kitt Peak National Observatory), research institutes (such as the Space Telescope Science Institute), or laboratories (such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

What/where are the jobs?

While the demand for astronomers has been decreasing in recent years, there are signs that the trend is leveling out and perhaps reversing. The field of astronomy has become even more exciting with the possibilities of new types of data from more sensitive detectors; with detailed images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites; and with recent missions to the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The capability to perform increasingly complex and realistic numerical simulations and process huge volumes of data has also increased dramatically with the advent of new generations of supercomputers and considerable computing power available on desktop computers. New discoveries are being made every day, as can often be seen from newspaper headlines or from picking up a copy of Sky and Telescope or Astronomy magazine. Recent observations are presenting new mysteries faster than they are supplying answers - we have much more work to do!

For more information

See A New Universe to Explore: Careers in Astronomy at
from the American Astronomical Society's Education Office.

Or visit the following Web sites:
National Optical Astronomical Observatories   http://www.tuc.noao.edu
National Radio Astronomy Observatory http://www.nrao.edu
Space Telescope Science Institute http://www.stsci.edu
Harvard Smithsonian Center For Astrophysics http://cfa-www.harvard.edu

Joyce Ann Guzik, Astrophysicist
Applied Theoretical and Computational Physics Division
Los Alamos National Laboratory
E-mail: joy@lanl.gov