Astronomy and space – a brief background
Generally speaking, astronomy is the area of physics that studies things beyond the Earth and its atmosphere. Astronomy is a broad topic that includes many subjects, including astrophysics, astrogeology and astrobiology.
As someone specialising in this field, you will study how things in the universe - such as galaxies, stars and matter - form and interact with each other. You will also carry out complex calculations to help us gain a better understanding of everything that exists beyond our planet.
To start a career in astronomy and space, you will need to have a strong foundation in physics and mathematics.
Given the recent commercialisation of the space industry, there are many other positions in the field that are not necessarily linked to the sciences, such as roles in marketing and business.
The education you’ll need for a career in astronomy and space
If you want a career in astronomy and space centred around science, you will need to study physics for your A-levels (or equivalent), along with maths and possibly further maths.
If you choose to attend university, you should enrol in a physics undergraduate course. You may also have the option to choose a more specific pathway, such as an undergraduate degree in astrophysics or astronomy.
However, unless you are certain that you want a career in astronomy and space prior to enrolment, it is recommended to do a more general all-encompassing physics degree, as it will allow you to gain an insight to other topics within the subject.
As you progress on your course, you will be able to pick modules that concern subjects you are most interested in.
If you end up doing a degree in physics, you will also have the opportunity to enrol on a postgraduate programme that specialises in a particular area of physics. For example, you could do an MSc in Astronomy, or an MSc in Astrophysics.
Working in this sector involves a lot of research and specialised knowledge. Thus, in order to become a physicist that works in the area of astronomy and space, you’ll need to earn a PhD. Once you have completed your postgraduate education, you will be ready to embark on your professional career.
Keep in mind that doing a degree isn’t the only route to a career in astronomy. There’s the opportunity to complete a technical qualification, or an apprenticeship. For example, Airbus, the UK Space Agency and the University of Leicester recently collaborated to launch their space engineering technical apprenticeship. The programme provides students with technical skills key to the space industry, such as spacecraft manufacturing and design.
Working in the field of astronomy and space
Most opportunities in the field of astronomy and space are at higher education institutions and with international organisations such as NASA and the European Space Agency. With the heightened participation of the private sector in space exploration, you may also find positions at companies such as SpaceX.
Wherever you end up working, a physicist specialising in this area is primarily tasked with conducting research. From writing literature reviews on the work of other scientists to monitoring and analysing data from satellites, physicists are the ones pushing the boundaries of what we know about the universe.
When you are carrying out research, you will apply the skills and theoretical knowledge that you have gained during your education to help solve some of the biggest questions concerning astronomy and space and thus help develop new theories.
You will spend a lot of the time in a lab analysing the data collected to help us gain a better understanding about the universe and what is contained in it. If you are in the right place at the right time, you may even be able to discover a new galaxy or star!
Due to the nature of the work, you will have to have a good knowledge of complex statistical processes and equations, as well as be a competent computer modeller.
If you work with an institution or organisation with global connections, you will have the chance to collaborate with scientists from all around the world and participate in conferences where you are able to showcase your work to others.