Exploring this Job

A number of summer or part-time jobs are usually available in observatories. The latter may be either on a summer or year-round basis. These jobs not only offer experience in astronomy but often act as stepping-stones to good jobs upon graduation. Students employed in observatories might work as guides or as assistants to astronomers.

Students can test their interest in this field by working part time, either as an employee or as a volunteer, in planetariums or science museums. Many people enjoy astronomy as a hobby, and there are a number of amateur astronomy clubs and groups active throughout the country. Amateur astronomers have often made important contributions to the field of astronomy. In 1996, for example, a new comet was discovered by an amateur astronomer in Japan. Students may gain experience in studying the skies by purchasing, or even building, their own telescopes.

Reading or using the Internet to learn more on your own is also a good idea. What about astronomy interests you? You can find specific information in books or on the Internet. Check out NASA's Web site at https://www.nasa.gov. It contains useful information about careers in astronomy and aeronautics and information about current space exploration. Another interesting Web site is http://www.astronomytoday.com, which features a solar system guide; articles about astronomy, space exploration, and cosmology; and book reviews. When you hear in the news that a comet or meteor shower will be visible from Earth, be sure to set your alarm to get up and watch and learn. Science teachers will often discuss such events in class.

The Job

Astronomers study the universe and all of its celestial bodies. They collect and analyze information about the moon, planets, sun, and stars, which they use to predict their shapes, sizes, brightness, and motions.

They are interested in the orbits of comets, asteroids, and even artificial satellites. Information on the size and shape, the luminosity and position, the composition, characteristics, and structure as well as temperature, distance, motion, and orbit of all celestial bodies is of great relevance to their work.

Practical application of activity in space is used for a variety of purposes. The launching of space vehicles and satellites has increased the importance of the information astronomers gather. For example, the public couldn't enjoy the benefits of accurate weather prediction if satellites weren't keeping an eye on our atmosphere. Without astronomical data, satellite placement wouldn't be possible. Knowledge of the orbits of planets and their moons, as well as asteroid activity, is also vital to astronauts exploring space.

Astronomers are usually expected to specialize in some particular branch of astronomy. The astrophysicist is concerned with applying the concepts of physics to planets, stellar atmospheres and interiors, galaxies, the universe as a whole, and the formation and evolution of these systems. Radio astronomers study the source and nature of celestial radio waves with extremely sensitive radio telescopes. Stellar astronomers study the stars. Planetary astronomers study conditions on the planets. Cosmologists study the origin and the structure of the universe. Celestial mechanics specialists study the motion and position of planets and other objects in the solar system.

The majority of astronomers either teach or do research or a combination of both. Astronomers in many universities are expected to teach such subjects as physics and mathematics in addition to astronomy. Other astronomers are engaged in such activities as the development of astronomical instruments, administration, technical writing, and consulting.

Astronomers who make observations may spend long periods of time in observatories. Astronomers who teach or work in laboratories may work eight-hour days. However, those who make observations, especially during celestial events or other peak viewing times, may spend long evening hours in observatories. Paperwork is a necessary part of the job. For teachers, it can include lesson planning and paper grading. Astronomers conducting research independently or for a university can expect to spend a considerable amount of time writing grant proposals to secure funding for their work. For any scientist, sharing the knowledge acquired is a vital part of the work. Astronomers are expected to painstakingly document their observations and eventually combine them into a coherent report, often for peer review or publication.

Although the telescope is the major instrument used in observation, many other devices are also used by astronomers in carrying out these studies, including spectrometers for the measurement of wavelengths of radiant energy; photometers for the measurement of light intensity; balloons, rockets, and airplanes for carrying various measuring devices; and computers for processing and analyzing all the information gathered.

Astronomers use ground-based telescopes for night observation of the skies at optical and infrared wavelengths. Telescopes in space have become an important tool for the work of many astronomers. They provide access to wavelengths not accessible from the ground, such as far-infrared, submillimeter, ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray, and, as in the case of the Hubble Space Telescope (https://hubblesite.org), can provide much sharper vision, even at optical wavelengths, than land-based capability allows.