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.
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Astrophysics vs. Aerospace Engineering: An Overview
Despite some similarities, astrophysics and aerospace engineering are two distinct fields of study, employment and scientific research.
To understand the interdisciplinary field of astrophysics, you need to first break it down into the two main components, astronomy and physics. Astronomy is the natural science discipline that focuses on studying space and celestial bodies such as stars, planets, meteors and galaxies. Physics is the science that examines the motions, forces, behaviors and energy transfer involved in the matter that makes up the universe.
Astrophysics is one specific branch within astronomy that emphasizes the physical properties of subjects of astronomical inquiry, such as stars, planets, asteroids, black holes and even entire galaxies. An astrophysicist is essentially a scientist who uses the concepts and methods of physics to study astronomical bodies and phenomena using equipment such as radio and optical telescopes on Earth and the Hubble Telescope in space. An astronomer’s work is often performed for the purpose of expanding general scientific knowledge, but astronomy and astrophysics do have some practical applications on Earth.
The field of aerospace engineering emphasizes the work of engineering design. In general, engineers are professional problem-solvers who draw on the principles of science and mathematics to devise and implement solutions to a variety of real-life problems. Aerospace engineers are engineers who design solutions to needs and problems involving air and space travel, research and exploration. For example, aerospace engineers might develop satellites, missiles, rockets and aircraft and spacecraft, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The field of aerospace engineering itself encompasses two different subfields of engineering: aeronautical and astronautical. Astronautical engineers, who focus their efforts on the systems, processes, devices, equipment and vehicles used in space travel and exploration, are the type of aerospace engineers most closely related to astronomers and astrophysicists. The aerospace engineers who focus on solving problems related to flight within the Earth’s atmosphere are called aeronautical engineers.
One way to look at the major difference between the fields of astrophysics and aerospace engineering – particularly astronautical engineering – is the focus of each area. The field of astrophysics serves to advance human knowledge of the astronomical bodies and phenomena that occur outside the Earth’s atmosphere, while astronautical engineers focus on developing the equipment, systems and spacecraft that make astronomical inquiry possible.
Aerospace Engineering and Astronomy Curricula
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 and mathematics.
Studies in Science and Mathematics for Aspiring Astronomers and Aerospace Engineers
Naturally, astrophysicists – and astronomers – need to study physics. While astrophysicists use the theories and methods of physics in their research into celestial bodies, aerospace engineers rely on having a thorough knowledge of physics to plan for the physics of flight both within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Physics applies to aerospace engineering when calculating the drag that applies to flight movement and the force of the thrust that is needed to fly. Newton’s Laws of Motion – especially the Third Law that deals with actions and reactions – may be particularly applicable to the work of aerospace engineers.
Chemistry is another important area of study in most astronomy and aerospace engineering curricula. Like physics, chemistry is a branch of physical science that involves the study of matter. However, instead of focusing on time, space, forces and energy, chemistry looks at the properties of matter and the way material substances combine and react. Part of the study of astronomy and astrophysics is research into the composition of celestial objects.
For aerospace engineers, chemistry applies in two major ways. For one thing, having a strong foundation in chemistry is important for understanding the combustion process that is used to power and propel spacecraft. The other impact of chemistry on aerospace engineering is on selecting the materials used in astronomical engineering solutions. Using the wrong materials to build a manned spaceship, in particular, could be disastrous since these vessels must meet certain requirements in terms of protecting occupants from radiation, reducing flammability and otherwise being an appropriate choice for the challenging environments involved in space travel.
Math coursework is also important for both of these degree paths. Generally, astronomy majors, astrophysics majors and aerospace engineering majors should expect to take math classes such as calculus, differential equations, linear algebra and statistics.
Specialized Coursework for Astronomy and Aerospace Engineering Students
When it comes to the major-specific classes for astronomy and aerospace engineering students, there is often a lot of overlap in terms of the broad topics covered, even if the required major coursework itself is very different. 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.
The overlap between the study of astrophysics and the study of aerospace principles is so extensive that aerospace engineers are sometimes referred to as aerophysics engineers. The distinctions between these careers have less to do with astrophysics vs. aerospace content areas and more to do with a focus on scientific inquiry vs. practical design.
What Are the Benefits of Aerospace Engineering?
The truth is that both astrophysics and aerospace engineering are excellent career paths for those with the aptitude for challenging coursework and professional work in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas. Neither field is inherently better than the other, but there are significant distinctions between these degree and career paths that may make one of these majors a better fit for you personally. In particular, there are some major benefits to choosing a degree in aerospace or astrophysics engineering.
The 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.
Unraveling the mysteries of the universe from the clues found outside the Earth’s atmosphere may sound glamorous, but in fact, much of an astrophysicist’s workday is spent performing mathematical calculations, running computer simulations and analyzing data. Gathering data pertaining to astrophysical research, which often consists of looking at celestial objects and phenomena through a telescope, is an important part of an astrophysicist’s work, but this task takes up a comparably small amount of this professional’s time working. While astrophysicists’ findings can ultimately be applied to real-world problems and situations in some ways – such as in the form of communication satellites, MRI medical imaging tests and the tracking of near-Earth asteroids – much of the research in this field is done purely to better understand the universe.
Engineers focus largely on practical application and design. If you find the idea of spending your life chasing some elusive piece of data that may or may not provide data that expands humanity’s philosophical and theoretical knowledge discouraging, an aerospace engineering career may be a better fit. You see the results of your work in the creation of manned and unmanned spaceships, satellites, propulsion systems, and similar solutions to astronomical research needs. While engineers also analyze data and run simulations, they do so with a much stronger focus on immediate practical application. Astronomy Engineering also encompasses the work of formulating design ideas, fleshing those concepts out with the help of computer-aided design software, developing and testing prototypes and adjusting designs for optimal performance.
Some potential job titles for aerospace engineers include flight controls engineer, avionics engineer, aerospace stress engineer, flight test engineer, space systems engineer and propulsion structural analyst, O*NET reported. O*NET reports fewer distinct job titles for astronomers and astrophysicists, such as astrophysics research scientist. As of 2020, astronomers and aerospace engineers tend to have similar earning potential. The median wage for aerospace engineers in 2020 was $118,610, according to the BLS, while astronomers made a median salary of $119,730.
More Jobs With a Bachelor’s Degree
Whether you want to work in astrophysics or aerospace engineering, a college education is a must. However, these fields have different education expectations. A bachelor’s degree is the typical level of education required to work as an aerospace engineer, while most astrophysicists have a doctoral degree plus additional training.
Aerospace engineers can qualify for most entry-level jobs in the field with only a bachelor’s degree. O*NET reported that 59 percent of aerospace engineers had a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education, and another 8 percent of the field had only an associate’s degree. While a master’s degree was listed in the top three most common levels of education reported among aerospace engineers, only about one-third of the profession has this degree – so not having your master’s won’t hold you back too much. You don’t need a higher level of formal education than a bachelor’s degree to qualify for your Professional Engineering (PE) license. If you’re willing to keep on top of the evolving technologies in the field, you may still be able to advance to supervisory roles such as engineering manager even if you never go to graduate school. While a bachelor’s degree can serve them well, some 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.
Astronomers and physicists, on the other hand, need a Ph.D. for many job roles in research and academia. More than 90 percent of astronomers have a doctorate, either constituting the worker’s highest level of education on its own (27 percent) or along with formal post-doctoral training (64 percent), O*NET reported. Just 5 percent of the profession reported having only a bachelor’s degree.
A bachelor’s degree might be enough to work as an astronomer for the federal government, but your options for advancement without a graduate degree will be limited.
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 are more jobs in aerospace engineering than in astronomy – and data projections suggest that there will continue to be more new jobs emerging for engineers than astrophysicists.
As of 2020, the BLS expected astronomer and physicist jobs to increase by 8 percent over a decade, but astronomer roles specifically will rise by just 5 percent from 2020 through 2030. Considering that the small occupation of astronomer currently employs just 2,100 Americans, that projected job growth rate translates to just 100 new jobs.
In comparison, there were 61,400 aerospace engineers working in the U.S. in 2020, and the BLS expected jobs for this occupation to increase by 8 percent from 2020 through 2030, culminating in an additional 5,100 by the end of the decade.
The related occupation of physicist, already a great deal larger than astronomer, will likely see an increase of 1,500 new job opportunities in the same time astronomers will see just 100 new jobs.