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If you get the opportunity to see Halley's comet flying through the sky in your lifetime, try to understand how lucky you are because it only orbits the sun every 76 to 79 years. Since the beginning of humanity, stargazers have marvelled at the sight of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Northern Lights and meteor showers. Sometimes we feel so small when looking up at the sky, often questioning what is really out there.

Until the telescope was discovered, most people believed that the Earth was flat and that you could literally sail off the edge. Galileo, one of the pioneers of astronomy, informed the scientific world that the Earth was in fact round and that it orbited the sun and not vice versa. Technology has greatly advanced since then. Today, astronomy is a far more sophisticated science. Instead of relying on the naked eye, astronomers use highly advanced telescopes and computer equipment to find out what lies beyond the earths boundaries.

Astronomers study the movement of planets, stars, galaxies and other large objects in the universe. Their research covers such diverse fields as cosmology, galaxy formation, particle physics, planetary geology, solar physics, interstellar media and the structure of stars. Astronomers research the universe and develop instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis. They conduct observational and theoretical research to broaden our knowledge of energy, matter and natural processes throughout the universe, particularly beyond Earth. They study distant galaxies and the birth and death of stars that live many light-years away. In fact, they are constantly discovering something new about our universe.

Ironically, astronomers actually spend very little time gazing at the stars. Instead they spend the majority of their working hours analyzing data and observational material. Sometimes called "observational astronomers," they use a variety of ground-based and space-borne telescopes and scientific instruments to make observations of and obtain data on astronomical objects. Basic properties such as mass, physical properties, motion, distance, size and brightness may be measured to test hypotheses about the nature of the universe and matter within it.

Some astronomers work at major observatories and research institutions, where, in addition to their own research activities, they plan and help implement new instruments and techniques. Astronomers, in addition to having academic research skills, need to be experts in various aspects of observatory and instrument engineering, and computer techniques. All aspects of modern astronomy are highly technical, involving the use of state-of-the-art telescopes and detectors, and computers for instrument control, data gathering and subsequent processing and analysis. Most astronomers connected with universities have teaching responsibilities and are expected to produce original research work for publication in scientific journals. Finally, being scientists, they must follow the scientific method of creating and testing theories and make sure their calculations about the cosmos are correct.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Astronomers must have an aptitude for physics and mathematics, and be able to pay close attention to detail. Most are fascinated with outer space and cosmology. Astronomers must enjoy working with others as members of a team, while at the same time working alone with a capacity for reflection and contemplative study.

They should have excellent writing and computer skills and patience with and curiosity about the physical world. Successful astronomers enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, using sophisticated instruments and equipment to perform tasks requiring precision, and supervising the work of others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design and conduct observational surveys
  • Conduct detailed analyses and develop numerical models to extend knowledge of celestial bodies and radiation received from the component parts of the universe
  • Study the formation, structure and evolution of stars, galaxies and planets
  • Develop or participate in the development of instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis
  • Use microscopes to generate initial scientific data and research
  • Study basic properties such as mass, physical properties, motion, distance, size and brightness
  • Work on research projects with other astronomers
  • Raise funds for scientific research
  • Write research papers for scientific journals and conference proceedings
  • Teach astronomy or astrophysics at universities or in astronomical societies
  • Present lectures and talks at conferences
  • Astronomers work in a variety of settings. Observational work requires unconventional hours and a considerable amount of traveling. Sometimes, astronomers work at high altitudes in remote areas where the weather conditions can be extreme. General research and teaching work will be within the time constraints of a standard workweek.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Astronomers are employed by university and government research laboratories, observatories, planetaria and science centers. Some may also find employment in aerospace and related space industries. Positions are scarce, especially in research, and competition for advancement is intense.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What does the future hold for astronomers? Since most astronomers have PhDs by the time they actually start doing the work they have worked so hard to get , they are happy to stay within the field. In fact, the job turnover rate is almost nonexistent. However, astronomers can move into computing jobs, creating models and computer programming to analyze astronomical data. They could also move into other areas of physics.

  Educational Paths  
Astronomers require a four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in astronomy, astrophysics or physics as the minimum qualification for work in technical positions in observatories, planetaria and science centers. A Master of Science (MS) degree is required for most research assistant positions and a doctoral (PhD) degree is needed for university teaching and most federal government research positions. Most astronomers who have doctoral degrees work as post-doctoral fellows before finding permanent employment. Also, PhD graduates must prove themselves by having articles published in magazines or scientific journals before they become well established or recognized within the field of astronomy.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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