An astronomer is someone who researches astronomical objects like stars, moons and comets. They study the origin and structure of these objects, how they interact with each other, and how they could evolve over time. Astronomy is divided into two areas: observational and theoretical. Observational astronomers use vehicles like telescopes and satellites to observe the universe, while theoretical astronomers use computer programmes and maths calculations to develop theories based on these observations. For example, galaxies take millions of earth years to complete one life cycle, observational astronomers look at these galaxies at different times to see how they’ve evolved. Then, theoretical astronomers use this data to create simulations.
Many of us would love to actually go to space, but applications to be a full-time astronaut are incredibly competitive. You’ll need several years of work experience, be able to pass a physical test, have a master’s or PhD and hold citizenship of a country that has a working space agency. Your best bet is to check your country’s space agency website regularly to see if they’re recruiting. You can find a list of all countries with space agencies here, how to apply to the European Space Agency here and information about applying to NASA here.
It’s definitely possible to be a successful astronomer with an undergraduate degree, but you’ll need to have a PhD for more senior research positions.
While astronomers focus on space and the celestial bodies it contains, astrophysicists focus on the physics of space and how everything works. Thus, a career as an astronomer is a good option for someone who wants to study the universe as a whole and utilise their research skills. However, astrophysicists specialise in the physics of space and utilise maths and technical skills.
General responsibilities of an astrophysicist include: coming up with hypotheses about physical phenomena using computers to create mathematical models and analysing and interpreting large amounts of data.
To become an astrophysicist, it’s strongly recommended that you have a PhD.
Science museum curator
A career as a science museum curator is a great opportunity to spread your knowledge of astrophysics to the general public, and get the next generation interested in science. You could find yourself working at a science museum, a smaller exhibition or even at a planetarium. Larger museums have one curator for each section, while smaller ones have one or two people for the entire museum. Science museum curators work behind
the scenes: planning engaging new exhibits, securing items and researching their histories, presenting complex scientific information in an accessible way and negotiating with stakeholders about finances and other matters. This role doesn’t need postgraduate study, many curators start as assistants or volunteers and work their way up.
Space system engineer
Working as a space system engineer allows you to put your understanding of astrophysics theories into practice, to help advance space exploration. Space system engineers are responsible for making sure that space vehicles like satellites and rocket ships work safely and efficiently. In this role, you’ll work with spacecraft from conception to launch, tweaking and refining the early design, carefully putting together the different components and fixing technical issues during test launches. Given how valuable space equipment is to our life here on earth (weather satellites, telecommunications), this is a rewarding career path.