Education and Training: Doctoral degree
Salary: Median—$97,320 per year
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Astronomers are sometimes called astrophysicists. They use the laws of physics and mathematics to learn about the nature of matter and energy throughout the universe, which includes the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. In addition, astronomers apply their knowledge to solve problems in navigation, space flight, and satellite communications. They also develop the instruments and techniques needed to observe and collect astronomical data.
Many astronomers work in colleges and universities where they do research and teach astronomy. Some work in observatories, planetariums, and museums where they help to explain what is known about the universe to the public. Others are employed by government agencies, such as the U.S. Naval Observatory or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A few work for companies in the aerospace industry.
Some astronomers primarily gather and analyze large quantities of data from observatories and satellites. They usually only spend a few weeks each year making observations with telescopes. For many years, satellites and other kinds of space-based instruments have greatly expanded the range of observation for astronomers. Most recently, new computer and telescope technologies are leading to a resurgence in ground-based observation techniques.
Astronomers must first decide which objects to observe and the methods and equipment to use. They may go to an observatory at a scheduled time and make and record their observations, or they may have assistants gather the data. Astronomers then analyze these observations, put them into numerical form, and if possible, explain them using existing hypotheses or theories.
Other astronomers spend most of their time working on new hypotheses, theories, or mathematical models. They often use computers to help them do the many calculations required to develop complex hypotheses about space. Such hypotheses may help explain some of the observations made by other astronomers.
Astronomers often specialize in one area, such as the sun, the solar system, or in the development of instruments and techniques. Their recent findings have included quasars, pulsars, black holes, and other mysterious phenomena in the far reaches of space.
The discoveries and theories of astronomers have been put to work in many useful ways. For example, they have improved weather forecasting, the measurement of time, and air and sea navigation. Astronomical study has been instrumental in the development of atomic theory and the exploration of space.
Education and Training Requirements
There are a few openings as assistants or technicians in astronomy for those who have a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy. There are more opportunities for those who have a master's degree in astronomy or a related field, such as physics or mathematics. To be an astronomer, a doctoral degree in astronomy or a closely related field, such as astrophysics, is usually required. It takes about four years to get a bachelor's degree and about another four years of full-time study to earn a doctoral degree. Astronomers also spend time studying throughout their careers to keep up with new discoveries in their field.
Getting the Job
The astronomy department of your university will be able to give you advice and information about getting a job. You should apply directly to colleges and universities, national research centers, museums and planetariums, and other places that traditionally employ astronomers. Many of these jobs are advertised in professional journals. You should also consider applying for a job in places that have not traditionally employed astronomers. For example, a two-year college or high school may hire you, especially if you show enthusiasm for teaching and are prepared to teach other subjects in addition to astronomy. For some of these teaching jobs you may have to be certified by the state in which you teach. You may also be able to find other nontraditional jobs in industry, publishing, or scientific research. To find these kinds of jobs, you may first have to do a lot of searching on your own to determine the needs of employers.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Astronomers with a doctoral degree can advance by moving into high-level positions in research and teaching. Many astronomers consider recognition as an expert in their special field to be the best form of advancement. They usually get this recognition only after spending years on research problems and having the results of their work published in scientific journals. Astronomers with only bachelor's degrees will find only limited opportunity for advancement in astronomy. A doctoral degree or a move into a related field, such as engineering or high school teaching, provides the best opportunities for advancement.
Employment of astronomers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014. Although government funding of astronomy research is expected to increase from 2004 to 2014, funding will still be limited. This limited funding will result in competition for basic research jobs. Most job openings will result from workers who retire.
Many astronomers work in well-equipped offices, laboratories, classrooms, and observatories with fellow scientists and students who share the same interests and goals. Others work with the general public to whom they try to convey their own interest in and enthusiasm for astronomy. Astronomers sometimes need to travel to remote observation sites and must often work at night. Most astronomers find their work exciting and personally rewarding because of the challenges it offers them. They usually devote long hours to their research and to the study needed to keep up with new developments in their field. They need to be patient and careful workers who can work for months or even years on the details of a research problem. They must also be able to communicate their findings to others.
Where to Go for More Information
American Astronautical Society
6532 Rolling Mill Place, Ste. 102
Springfield, VA 22152-2354
Universities Space Research Association
10211 Wincopin Circle, Ste. 500
Columbia, MD 21044-3432
Earnings and Benefits
Salaries vary according to education, experience, and the type of employer. The median annual salary of astronomers was $97,320 in 2004. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.
An astronomer is an individual who studies the universe primarily using telescopes. Astronomers rely on both observations of celestial objects, including planets, stars, and galaxies, and physical theories to better understand how these objects formed and work. Although professional astronomers conduct most astronomy research today, amateur sky watchers continue to play a key role.
Astronomy has been practiced since the beginning of recorded history. Many ancient civilizations employed people with some knowledge of the night sky and the motions of the Sun and Moon, although in many cases the identities of these ancient astronomers have long since been lost. At that time the work of astronomers had both practical importance, in the form of keeping track of days, seasons, and years, as well as religious implications. Astronomers did not emerge as true scientists until the Renaissance, when new observations and theories by astronomers such as Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) of Poland and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) of Italy challenged the beliefs of the church. Since then astronomers have gradually emerged as scientists in the same class as physicists and chemists, employed primarily by universities and government research institutions.
Two Types of Astronomers
In the early twenty-first century, astronomers can be grouped into two different types, observational and theoretical. Observational astronomers use telescopes, on Earth and in space, to study objects ranging from planets and moons to distant galaxies. They analyze images, spectra, and other data in an effort to gain new knowledge about the objects under examination. Theoretical astronomers, on the other hand, may never venture near a telescope. They work with computers, or even just pencil and paper, to develop models and theories to explain astronomical phenomena. In many respects observational astronomers are closer to the classical image of an astronomer, whereas theoretical astronomers are more strongly rooted in the worlds of physics and mathematics. The two groups do work closely together: Observational astronomers provide data to help theoretical astronomers develop and refine models, and in turn seek observational evidence for the theoreticians' work.
The Difference Between Astronomy and Astrology
Astronomers are often confused with astrologers, although the two are very different. Astrologers attempt to divine information about the future through the locations of the Sun and planets in the sky. Astrology is opposed by nearly all astronomers, who not only reject the notion that the positions of celestial objects govern the future but also note that many of the data and definitions used by astrologers are inaccurate. Astronomy and astrology, however, were once more closely tied together: In medieval times, many astronomers relied on astrology as a primary means of making a living.
Not all astronomers are paid to do their work. There are a large number of amateur astronomers who pursue astronomy as a hobby rather than as a full-time job. They play a useful role in astronomical research, because they can observe the full sky far better than professional astronomers, who focus on small regions of the sky at a particular time. Amateur astronomers have made many asteroid, comet, and supernova discoveries. Automated sky surveys by professional astronomers, though, have began to make more of the discoveries that were once made almost exclusively by amateur astronomers.
see also Astronomy, History of (volume 2); Astronomy, Kinds of (volume 2); Careers in Astronomy (volume 2).
Goldsmith, Donald. The Astronomers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
A New Universe to Explore: Careers in Astronomy. American Astronomical Society. <http://www.aas.org/~education/career.html>. Odenwald, Sten. "Ask an Astronomer." <http://itss.raytheon.com/cafe/qadir/qanda.html>.
An astronomer is a person who studies everything above Earth's atmosphere. The field of astronomy is so broad that no one person can hope to be fluent in all aspects. Most astronomers specialize in one of several branches of astronomy. Astrophysicists study the origin and evolution of stars. Planetary geologists study the formation of planets. Cosmologists study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.
Astronomers rarely have the opportunity to study astronomical objects directly. They must depend on various forms of electromagnetic radiation received from distant objects. However, much information can be extracted from the radiation through careful analysis: chemical composition, temperature, motion through space, rotation speed, magnetic field strength, and other physical features.
In order to measure how bright an object in space is or measure its actual size, the distance to the object must be determined accurately. For example, a star could be bright because it is intrinsically a bright star, or it could be bright because it is very close. However, distance is one of the most difficult things to measure. To determine distances in space, astronomers depend on triangles.
Astronomers also use triangles to determine the distance to nearby stars. As Earth goes around the Sun, nearby stars shift their angular position by a small amount against the background of more distant stars. This angle, called a "parallax," can be measured accurately by astronomers. It is the vertex angle of a long isosceles triangle whose base is the diameter of Earth's orbit. Thus, using simple trigonometry, astronomers can determine the height of the triangle and thus the distance to the star.
Astronomers typically work at universities that own and operate major telescopes. To work in astronomy at this level, a doctorate is required along with several years of post-doctorate work. Astronomers in training take many courses in physics, engineering, computer science, and basic astronomy. Since working in astronomy requires an understanding of both quantum mechanics and general relativity, the mathematics requirements are difficult. Astronomers take many courses in advanced mathematics.
There are very few jobs for astronomers. Even jobs as astronomical technicians are hard to get and are usually reserved for advanced graduate students in the field. However, astronomy is one of the very few scientific disciplines where amateurs can make a significant contribution. Astronomers observe double stars , variable stars , search for asteroids , and search for comets. There are official channels where the information collected by amateurs can be transferred to scientists.
see also Cosmos; Solar System Geometry, History of; Solar System Geometry, Modern Under- standings of; Telescope; Universe, Geometry of.
Chaisson, Eric, and Steve McMillan. Astronomy Today, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.
DO ASTRONOMERS STILL PEER THROUGH A TELESCOPE?
It is no longer necessary to stay up all night to be an astronomer. Astronomers rarely "look through" a telescope. Many large telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, can be operated by remote control. Most images are captured by light-sensitive solid state devices attached to computers.