Astronomers think big! They want to understand the entire universe—the nature of the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, galaxies, and everything in between. An astronomer's work can be pure science—gathering and analyzing data from instruments and creating theories about the nature of cosmic objects—or the work can be applied to practical problems in space flight and navigation, or satellite communications.
Curiosity, imagination, ability to visualize abstract concepts, and strong math and analytical skills.
Because most jobs are in basic research and development, a doctoral degree is the usual educational requirement for astronomers. Master's degree holders qualify for some jobs in applied research and development, whereas bachelor's degree holders often qualify as research assistants or for other occupations related to astronomers.
Education and Training
A PhD degree in physics or closely related fields is typically required for basic research positions, independent research in industry, faculty positions, and advancement to managerial positions. This prepares students for a career in research through rigorous training in theory, methodology, and mathematics.
Additional experience and training in a postdoctoral research appointment, although not required, is important for astronomers aspiring to permanent positions in basic research in universities and government laboratories. Many astronomy PhD holders ultimately teach at the college or university level.
Holders of a bachelor's or a master's degree in astronomy often enter an unrelated field. However, they are also qualified to work in planetariums running science shows, to assist astronomers doing research, and to operate space-based and ground-based telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation.
Mathematical ability, problem-solving and analytical skills, an inquisitive mind, imagination, and initiative are important traits for anyone planning a career in astronomy.
Nature of the Work
Watch this DragonflyTV video interview with a real astronomer, Marianne Takamiya, who works at a telescope atop a 14,000-ft. mountain in Hawaii.
Most astronomers do not encounter unusual hazards in their work. Astronomers who make observations with ground-based telescopes may spend many hours working in observatories; this work usually involves travel to remote locations and may require working at night. Astronomers whose work depends on grant money often are under pressure to write grant proposals to keep their work funded.
Astronomers may need to work at odd hours to observe celestial phenomena, particularly those working with ground-based telescopes.
On the Job
Study celestial phenomena, using a variety of ground-based and space-borne telescopes and scientific instruments.
Analyze research data to determine its significance, using computers.
Present research findings at scientific conferences and in papers written for scientific journals.
Measure radio, infrared, gamma, and x-ray emissions from extraterrestrial sources.
Develop theories, based on personal observations or on observations and theories of other astronomers.
Raise funds for scientific research.
Collaborate with other astronomers to carry out research projects.
Develop instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis.
Teach astronomy or astrophysics.
Develop and modify astronomy-related programs for public presentation.
Calculate orbits and determine sizes, shapes, brightness, and motions of different celestial bodies.
Why do the planets orbit the sun without flying off into space? Do they move in perfect circles or do their orbits take a different shape? And how could you possibly do a science project about any of this—you can't do an experiment with the planets! However, you can build a model of our solar system that demonstrates the concept of gravity, using balls of different sizes to represent the sun and planets. Watch this video for an excellent introduction to the model:
Have you ever looked up at the stars at night and wondered how fast they were moving or how far away they were? By studying how the brightness of a star changes with distance, you can answer those questions. In this astronomy science project, you'll create a model of starlight and use Google's Science Journal app with your smartphone or tablet to discover the key relationship between brightness and distance.
Do you live someplace where you get to experience the full glory of all four seasons? If so, you know well the heady blossoms and dramatic skies of spring; the long, sun-drenched days of summer; the trees shaking in crimson and gold in fall; and the sparkling, brittle snows of winter. But you might not know why we have these seasons, over and over again, in a cycle as predictable as the rising and setting of the Sun. The reasons for the seasons are surprising and have to do with Earth's tilt…
How does the intensity of a light source change as you move away from it? This project describes a method to verify the inverse square law: how light, sound, electrical signals, and gravity each decrease with distance from their source. It does not matter if you are talking about a lightbulb or the sun; this law still applies!
Have you ever wondered what causes the tides in Earth's oceans? In this astronomy project, you will discover the answer for yourself! You will investigate how the Sun and Moon control tides in Earth's oceans.
Would it surprise you to learn that no one knows the exact age of the universe? Astronomers have estimates, and as they gather increasingly precise data and measurements, they continue to refine those estimates to come up with more accurate estimates. In this project, you can look at data about stars in dense groups called globular clusters and come up with your own estimate for the minimum age of the universe. How closely will your estimate match those of other astronomers?
Have you ever heard someone say that the moon is made of cheese? Even though the craters on the surface of the moon resemble holes in Swiss cheese, we know that this common myth is not true. Find out how craters are formed and why they are different sizes by doing this simple science project.
Have you ever seen amazing, colored images of objects in space, like stars or even entire galaxies? Some of these images were originally taken with forms of radiation that the human eye cannot actually see, like x-rays. In order to create the beautiful pictures you see in the news or online, scientists have to use an image-editing program to add color to them. In this astronomy science project, you will use raw x-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope to create amazing…
This is a great project for someone interested in both stargazing and photography. Bright city lights and even the light of the full Moon obscure the dimmest stars, which can make identifying constellations more difficult. In this astronomy science project, you will calibrate a digital camera to measure the skyglow in different locations. This can be a great tool to comparing the quality of different star viewing locations.
Do you wake up at the crack of dawn, or do you need an alarm clock to wake you up each morning? It may surprise you that the two are not always in synch. Nowadays, we use Standard Time to set our watches instead of Solar Time. Which method of timekeeping is the most accurate? Get ready to synchronize your watches!
Timekeeping is the science of how to keep time with precision and accuracy. People have been finding ways of measuring time for thousands of years, usually based on the movements…
You've heard of gold mining and coal mining, but think outside the box...or the planet...what about asteroid mining? Scientists, engineers, and business people believe asteroid mining is feasible, and they are in the beginning stages of long-term plans to mine asteroids for valuable resources during space missions. You don't want to miss out on all the fun; in this science project, you will come up with your own scientific plan for an asteroid mining company. We will help get you started by…
The first man-made satellite, the Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957. As of late 2020, more than 2,600 man-made satellites orbit Earth, with a little over 70% of them in low Earth orbit. If you would like to delve into how satellites and their sensors are configured, or into how their orbits are planned—and do not shy away from a little programming—this project is for you! With the help of FreeFlyer®—powerful software that allows you to simulate satellite orbit and…
You can measure the diameter of the Sun (and Moon) with a pinhole and a ruler! All you need to know is some simple geometry and the average distance between the Earth and Sun (or Moon). An easy way to make a pinhole is to cut a square hole (2-3 cm across) in the center of a piece of cardboard. Carefully tape a piece of aluminum foil flat over the hole. Use a sharp pin or needle to poke a tiny hole in the center of the foil. Use the pinhole to project an image of the Sun onto a wall or piece…
How do astronomers collect stardust? They design and build satellites that are launched into space to collect particles on specially designed panels. Satellites can be sent to orbit around an object of interest: a planet, moon, or comet. In this experiment, you can build your own mini satellite and use it to collect some pretend stellar debris. If you simulate an asteroid impact, how much stellar dust will your satellite collect? Will placing your satellite at different "orbital" distances from…
Many people are surprised to learn that the season's we experience—winter, spring, summer and fall—have nothing to do with the distance of Earth from the Sun. In this science fair project, you will investigate how the temperature on Earth actually depends on the tilt of Earth's axis of rotation.
The movement of satellites is intriguing, but how do they orbit the way they do? Aerospace engineers run calculations and set up computer models to help them predict how satellites move in space, but in this astronomy science project, you will create a physical model with marbles, clay, and a cookie sheet to help you study how satellites move in space and learn from your observations.
Do you ever wonder how pirates sailed the seven seas? The two most important things a pirate could have (besides a parrot and big hat) were a compass and an accurate watch. Ancient navigators didn't know about compasses, so how did they know where they were going? Could they have used the stars to know which way to go?
If you are interested in space travel and willing to do some coding, this project is for you! It uses FreeFlyer®—powerful software that allows you to simulate space travel—to explore essential mission questions.
Space travel is complex. Many factors influence the trajectory of a spacecraft. Simulations like the ones generated by FreeFlyer are powerful, as they allow you to analyze each factor in isolation, and then visualize the effects in various ways.
Once you familiarize…
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