Astronomers are the science professionals who research the components of space, including the stars, the planets, and galaxies near and far. Like other types of scientists, astronomers seek to answer questions about the natural and physical world and devise theories. However, astronomers face a unique challenge. They can’t interact with faraway stars and celestial bodies, which means they can’t conduct experiments in the same way that biologists, physicists or chemists do. Instead, they use equipment both on the ground, like telescopes, and in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope, to observe these phenomena and gather data. Based on those findings, astronomers us computer software and mathematical calculations to create models and theories that describe how the universe works and how it evolves.
Specialists within the field of astronomy include galactic astronomers, stellar astronomers, solar astronomers, planetary astronomers, radio astronomers, cosmologists, optical astronomers, extragalactic astronomers, high-energy astrophysicists and theoretical astronomers. Research in the field of astronomy can be either basic, for the purpose of developing the knowledge of the scientific community, or applied, for the purpose of using findings in practical ways. Applied research in astronomy contributes directly to developing new technologies and processes, while basic research contributes indirectly by creating a foundation of scientific knowledge.
Astronomers in research positions need advanced college degrees. Most aspiring astronomers begin their college-level studies in physics, though some earn a bachelor’s degree in astronomy. Though undergraduate degree programs in physics don’t provide in-depth knowledge of astronomy per se, they do provide a strong background in electromagnetism, classical and quantum mechanics, optics and thermodynamics, all of which can help students better grasp advanced astronomy coursework.
Ultimately, candidates who aspire to astronomer positions in research, whether at a college or university, a research and development laboratory or within the federal government, must earn a Ph.D. in astronomy. Typically, Ph.D. programs will cover courses in computer science, statistics, calculus and linear algebra but will focus on a specific subfield of astronomy, such as cosmology. Graduates of Ph.D. programs in astronomy typically start their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. They spend two to three years working under the supervision of experienced astronomers. Some Ph.D. graduates complete more than one postdoctoral research position at various institutions, where they have access to a wide range of experienced mentors and scientific equipment.
Astronomers earn a median annual salary of $96,460, while top astronomers who work for employers like the federal government can earn as much as $139,140 or more, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job outlook is about average for astronomers, with the BLS anticipating a 10 percent increase in career opportunities over a decade. Many of these jobs will be at national laboratories or universities, though competition at academic institutions may become more competitive than it has been in the past.
Astronomers study galaxies, solar systems, planets, stars, and a wide range of other celestial bodies that comprise space. They use telescopes both on land and in space to observe and research these phenomena, either to increase what we know about science or with the aim of solving a problem or enhancing a process.