astrophysics

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Overview

Astrophysicists are scientists that study the physical components of celestial objects. Among the objects studied are the sun, other stars, galaxies, extra-solar planets, the interstellar planets, the interstellar medium, and the cosmic microwave background. Their emissions are examined across all parts of the electromagnet spectrum, and the properties examined include luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition.

They study the physics of the universe as well as the interaction between the various objects which occupy it. Astrophysicists can either study the theoretical aspects of space or apply their fundamental knowledge of physics to explore various occurrences in space such as dark matter, black holes, stellar evolution, super clusters, and neutron stars. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists typically apply many disciplines of physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

Since the 15th century, famous astronomers and astrophysicists have made their mark-familiar names, such as: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley, as in the comet. More contemporary names are: Van Allen, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who has popularized this science discipline on numerous television documentaries.

Education

As one can readily surmise, this profession is steeped in mathematics and physics. Therefore, one must have the aptitude, as well as the passionate interest in both of these subjects. To begin one’s college education in this field, the student should select a learning institution offering courses in astronomy and or astrophysics. The University of Colorado in Boulder offers such a program through their Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. Those taking the astrophysics route will be immersed in a curriculum of:

  • General Physics
  • Calculus
  • Experimental Physics
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Quantum Mechanics and Atomic Physics
  • Nuclear and Particle Physics
  • Solar and Space Physics
  • Plasma Physics

Didn’t we mention that there would be a lot of math and physics?

There are entry-level positions in astrophysics with a Bachelor of Science degree, however, a Master of Science is required for most research and consulting positions. As with the undergraduate program, there is predominately physics-related courses, for example from Princeton:

  • Diffuse Matter in Space
  • High-Energy Physics
  • Theoretical Astrophysics
  • Physics of the Universe
  • Plasma Physics
  • Plasma Waves
  • Turbulence in Plasma

Finally, one may wish to obtain a doctoral degree in astrophysics. This is necessary is you want to work for a college or university as a teacher or researcher. You will also need a Ph.D. to work in most federal government research positions. Many astrophysicists who have doctoral degrees work as post-doctoral fellows for 3-6 years before finding permanent employment.

Employment

Astrophysicists are hired by organizations involved in performing theoretical work, research or teaching in areas of astrophysics. Jobs for astrophysicists in these areas very competitive, as there is much interest in them and relatively few positions available.

•Colleges and universities
•Government agencies (NASA)
•Public and private research facilities
•Science centers and planetariums

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2012 that the median salary for the category of Physicists and Astronomers was $106,360. This salary is based upon those with a professional or doctoral degree. The expected growth/change rate is 10% or 2,400 jobs nationally through 2022.

A valuable source of information on the job market internationally in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics is the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Their website is aas.org. This organization lists job postings, internships, workshops and a plethora of additional information.