Astronomers are scientists who study celestial bodies, which include planets, stars and galaxies. The United States government agency that is most closely associated with astronomy is NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Although you may instantly relate NASA with astronauts who travel into space, the agency requires the support of many scientists and specialists on the ground to make these missions possible. NASA enlists the help of skilled astronomers in general as well as astrobiologists and astrophysicists.
The Contributions of NASA Astronomers
In NASA, the objectives of astronomers are to further the scientific community’s knowledge of the universe and the celestial bodies that compose it and to support the agency’s research and space exploration missions. NASA considers astronomers to be one type of physical scientist – along with roles like physicist, chemist, meteorologist, geologist and oceanographer – working within the broader category of aerospace careers.
NASA astronomers, in general, use satellites to observe the stars, planets and galaxies and use computers to analyze, model and manipulate data to draw conclusions. Some astronomers support NASA missions by using their knowledge of scientific instrumentation to design new research instruments and analyze and interpret the data those instruments collect.
In many ways, astronomical observations and research and NASA missions are interrelated. NASA space explorations and other research-gathering missions build on existing knowledge of the universe gleaned through astronomical research and observation, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In turn, the data produced by NASA missions help to advance the field of astronomy, allowing scientists in this field to develop and test theories.
Through their contributions to NASA missions and to the field of astronomy more generally, astronomers help develop technologies that have practical applications on Earth – including in fields like medicine and energy production – according to the BLS.
Is there life in outer space? That’s one of the questions astrobiologists confront, but it is far from the only concern of their field. Astrobiology is concerned with every aspect of life on planets, including our own. Astrobiologists study the origin and evolution of life on Earth, including distribution, diversity and clues to what the future holds for living things on our planet. They may also look for signs of past life on Mars and other celestial bodies, like the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, that are part of our solar system. Some NASA astrobiologists search for environments on other planets that could support human life.
Examples of astrobiology research at NASA include a mission to use a rover to collect a sample of Martian rock that could hold signs of ancient life and the discovery, made using the Hubble Space Telescope, of evidence of water vapor on one of Jupiter’s moons.
NASA has an entire branch dedicated to astrophysics, the area of astronomy that focuses on the physical properties of celestial bodies and on the application of physics laws and principles to space. If you work as an astrobiologist for NASA, part of your job might be to learn the chemical and physical properties of stars, planets, galaxies and other celestial bodies through studying the radiation they produce at different wavelengths, including ultraviolet, optical and infrared wavelengths. NASA astronomers’ studies in astrophysics encompass work in laboratory astrophysics, characterization of planets listed in the agency’s NASA Exoplanet Archive and research study of the solar system using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft.
If you want to get involved in astrophysics research at NASA, consider taking part in an astrophysics research competition or applying for the Hubble Fellowship Program or the Roman Technology Fellowship Program.
Government Astronomer Roles Beyond NASA
NASA isn’t your only option for a government role in astronomy. Around 22 percent of astronomers work for the federal government directly, according to the BLS. The total share of the occupation affiliated with the federal government, either through direct employment arrangements or through employment by national laboratories and observatories that receive federal funding, is around a third, according to the American Astronomical Society.
Outside of NASA, government astronomers may work for federal museums and educational institutions, like the Smithsonian Institution. Some astronomers work for the Space Weather Prediction Center, a part of the National Weather Service. Along with other physical scientists, astronomers may also work in divisions of the United States Department of Interior.
Some government astronomer jobs beyond NASA are part of the U.S. military. For example, astronomers may work in the United States Fleet Forces Command, part of the United States Navy, and in civilian employee roles with the Department of the Navy.