If you’re interested in a career exploring the mysteries of space, you might have narrowed down your choice of college majors to aerospace engineering and astronomy. Both aerospace engineer and astronomer are among the types of aerospace careers offered by organizations such as NASA and private sector space exploration ventures. It is the nature of their work, and their education, that distinguishes these two occupations. The benefits of choosing an aerospace engineering degree over an astronomy degree include working in more practical application capacities, having more job opportunities at the undergraduate level and seeing greater gains in the overall number of jobs.

astrophysics engineering

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Rewarding Work of Applying Scientific Principles to Spacecraft Design

Despite their similarities, aerospace engineering and astronomy are very different career paths. If you want your work to make a real, concrete difference, an aerospace engineering program offers advantages you might not find in the field of astronomy.

Astronomy is the natural science discipline that focuses on studying space and celestial bodies such as stars, planets, meteors and galaxies. Astronomers incorporate the theories of physics, chemistry and math into their work in basic or applied research. Using equipment such as radio and optical telescopes on Earth and the Hubble Telescope in space, they learn more about space. An astronomer’s work can be for the purpose of expanding general scientific knowledge or for the purpose of using that knowledge to develop new technology in areas such as medicine, communications, electronics and energy storage, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Astrophysics, a term often used interchangeably with astronomy, refers to the study of the matter and energy of the universe.

Aerospace engineering draws upon our scientific knowledge of space to design, develop, manufacture and test technology used in flight or in space. The specific branch of aerospace engineering that relates to astronomy is called aeronautical engineering. Aerospace engineers have a role more closely related to practical application of space science principles even compared to astronomers and astrophysicists focusing on applied research. They design and develop spacecraft including rockets and satellites as well as the technology used in spacecrafts’ navigation, control, communications and instrumentation systems.

Aerospace engineering vs. Astronomy

Due to the distinctions between these career paths, the curricula for these two degree programs have a different focus, but they also have some overlap. Both astronomers and aerospace engineers need a foundation in physical and life sciences such as physics and chemistry as well as mathematics coursework like calculus, differential equations, linear algebra and statistics. Aerospace engineering majors typically take at least some courses offered through their college’s physics or astronomy department, while astronomy majors may even complete courses such as Chemistry for Engineers and Mathematical Methods for Engineering and Physics. However, aerospace engineering majors move on to courses in engineering principles, structures, propulsion, aerodynamics, mechanics and stability and control. Astronomy students are more likely to take further coursework in advanced and specialized physics, including classes in astrophysics, atomic nuclear physics and modern physics laboratory work. Classes in space science, planetary science and similar courses of study are also common in astronomy and astrophysics bachelor’s degree programs.

Aerospace engineers also earn more than astronomers. The median wage for aerospace engineers is $113,030, according to the BLS, while astronomers make a median salary of $100,590.

More Jobs With a Bachelor’s Degree

One question to ask when pursuing your bachelor’s degree is what opportunities will be available to you without going to graduate school. For aerospace engineers, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient for entry-level jobs in the field. With just your undergraduate degree, you can attain your Professional Engineering (PE) license. You may even be able to attain promotions to supervisory roles and engineering manager positions without going to graduate school, providing that you still keep up on learning about evolving technologies in the field.

However, astronomers and physicists need a Ph.D. for many roles in research or academia, and a master’s degree for other positions. A bachelor’s degree might be enough to work as an astronomer or physicist for the federal government, which accounts for 23 percent of employment of this occupation, the BLS reported. However, your options for advancement in the field of astronomy or astrophysics are limited without going to graduate school.

While a bachelor’s degree can serve them well, many aerospace engineers do choose to pursue a graduate or doctoral degree at some point in their career – especially if they want to travel into space as an astronaut.

More New Job Opportunities

Marketability is a big part of choosing a college major. The last thing you want is to spend your time, money and effort to earn a degree that won’t help you find a good job. Both of these fields of study can lead to excellent employment prospects and high wages, but there will be more new jobs emerging in aerospace engineering than in astronomy.

Technically, the job outlook for astronomers and physicists is brighter than that of aerospace engineers. The BLS expects astronomer and physicist jobs to increase by a 14 percent over a decade, but astronomer roles specifically will rise by just 10 percent. That’s still a faster than average growth rate, but when you consider that the small occupation of astronomer currently employs just 2,000 Americans, it translates to just 200 new jobs. In comparison, there are currently 69,600aerospace engineers working in the U.S. The six percent growth rate predicted by the BLS would add another 4,200 new jobs.

The related occupation of physicist, already a great deal larger than astronomer, will likely see an increase of 20,500 new job opportunities in the same time astronomers will see just 200 new jobs.

Additional Resources

What Degree Do People With a Job in NASA Engineering Have?

How Advanced Does My Degree in Aerospace Engineering Need to Be to Get a Good Job?

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a NASA Scientist?

15 Degree Paths for Out-of-This-World Careers in Space Exploration