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If you get the opportunity to witness Halley's comet flying through the sky in your lifetime, understand how lucky you are because it only orbits the sun every 76 to 79 years. Since the beginning of time, stargazers have marvelled at the sight of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the Northern Lights and rare 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. Thanks to Galileo, one of the pioneers of astronomy, we learned that the world was in fact round and the Earth orbited around the sun and not vice versa. Technology has greatly advanced since then. Today, astronomy and its theoretical counterpart, astrophysics are far more sophisticated sciences. Instead of relying on the naked eye, astrophysicists use highly advanced telescopes and computer equipment to find out what lies beyond the Earths boundaries.

Astrophysicists are astronomers who study the behavior, physical properties and dynamic processes of celestial objects and phenomena. They use mathematics and physics to formulate explanations for the observed properties of the universe and the objects within in. They also make predictions which can be tested scientifically through further observation. Astrophysicists research the universe and develop instrumentation and software for astronomical observation and analysis. In the laboratory, they use equipment to smash particles together at high speeds to analyze the effect they have on each other.

Ironically, astrophysicists 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 theoretical 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. The experiments they perform are an attempt to learn about the nature and history of the universe and help them research things like the suns energy force and determine how it can be harnessed and used as a power supply on earth.

Some astrophysicists work at major observatories and research institutions, where, in addition to their own research activities, they plan and help implement new instruments and techniques. All aspects of modern astrophysics are highly technical, involving the use of state-of-the-art telescopes and computers for instrument control, data gathering and subsequent processing and analysis. Most astrophysicists connected with universities have teaching responsibilities and are expected to produce original research work for publication in scientific journals.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Astrophysicists 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. Astrophysicists 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 and curiosity of the physical world. Successful astrophysicists 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 astrophysicists and 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
  • Astrophysicists work in a variety of settings. Theoretical work takes place during standard office hours however longer hours may be required from time to time. Sometimes, astrophysicists work at high altitudes in remote areas where the weather conditions can be extreme. Those who do general research and teaching will also work standard 40-hour workweeks.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Astrophysicists 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 astrophysicists? Since most astrophysicists have PhDs, by the time they actually start doing the work they have worked so hard to get to, they are happy staying within the career field. In fact, the job turnover rate is almost nonexistent. However, astrophysicists 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  
Astrophysicists require a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy, astrophysics or physics as the minimum qualification for work in technical positions in observatories, planetaria and science centers. A master's degree is required for most research assistant positions and a PhD is needed for university teaching and most federal government research positions. Most astrophysicists 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 and astrophysics.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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