What do Astronomers do?

Humans have always been fascinated by the sky and the stars. In every stage of human history, we have looked up and marveled at the great expanse . And thus, for the longest time, humans have strived to know more about this vastness around us . Even though anybody may be mesmerized by the beauty and the size of the universe, there have been people who have dedicated their entire lives to studying the minute details of this ever-expanding universe. These lovers of the skies are known as astronomers. And astronomers have enlightened us a great deal with their knowledge of space.

Night sky filled with stars
Night sky filled with stars, Credit: Wikimedia/Michael J. Bennett

Table of Contents

What is an astronomer?

What exactly is an astronomer, though? When we think of space, we often think of astronauts, the people in bulky white suits who travel to space in big rockets. So, how are astronauts different than astronomers?

 

Astronomers, unlike astronauts, do not go into space. Astronomers are the people who observe objects in space from the safety of Earth. Instead of reaching outer space through rockets, astronomers use their handy telescopes to gaze at the thousands of different objects in the sky.

 

The precise meaning of the word “astronomer” is someone who studies and observes the celestial bodies. Astronomers have been around for a long time. There have been people, like Galileo

A portrait of Galileo Galilei
A portrait of Galileo Galilei, Credit: Wikimedia/Justus Sustermans

Galilei, who took it to the next step. Galileo was the first person to observe the stars using a telescope.

 

Both astronomers and their telescopes have evolved with time. The earlier telescopes were based on lenses and mirrors. Older telescopes were only capable of seeing in optical range. Now there are telescopes that can even catch the radio waves. These telescopes help astronomers study about the previously unseen parts of stars and galaxies.

What do astronomers do?

In old times, astronomers looked at the stars and made maps and catalogs of them. There are still catalogs that contain all the objects that are visible to humans in space.

 

Astronomers are the greatest observers, as everything they do revolves around observing the universe. Many telescopes see the universe in different ranges of light. Astronomers take data from these telescopes and then make sense of it.

 

Simply looking at the objects in the sky is not an astronomer’s job, though. Astronomers don’t just get images of the objects as we see in popular culture. Astronomers deal with graphs and numbers. Using these graphs and numbers, astronomers understand the physical characteristics of celestial objects.

A radio wave observatory
A radio wave observatory, Credit: Wikimedia/John Masterson, CSIRO

Astronomers have to process the data using powerful techniques with the help of computers. Many different objects are constantly being studied by astronomers in different parts of the world.
Astronomy is very closely related to physics, and thus most astronomers are also physicists. The laws of physics are pushed to their extremities in space. The celestial bodies are very huge and they contain tremendous amounts of energy. These conditions are not found in our daily lives, and so studying objects that push physics to its limit gives us a better understanding of the world.

 

Astronomers have an important hand in improving our knowledge of the world. Most of our understanding of even general things like gravity and light has been changed and improved by astronomical observations.

How to become an astronomer?

As mentioned earlier, most astronomers are physicists. One can pursue a career in astronomy by graduating with a degree in physics and then earning a master’s degree in subjects like astrophysics and astronomy. Knowledge of astrophysics is quite important for astronomy. One can think of astronomy as the observational study of space and astrophysics as the theoretical study of space.

 

There are many opportunities for research in the field of astronomy, and a plethora of universities all around the world that offer excellent Ph.D. programs in astronomy. One can pick up research and then join one of these Ph.D. programs. There is always research going on in the field of astronomy. Just like space, the study of it is never-ending. And so, there are always opportunities open for research in astronomy.

 

Many fields in astronomy are related to subjects like chemistry and biology as well. A chemistry graduate can pursue a career in spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is used to study the composition of different objects in the universe.

Some shining astronomers!

We all have seen mesmerizing pictures of space. There are pictures of colorful nebulae and beautiful galaxies. Most of these entrancing pictures have been taken by the renowned Hubble Space Telescope. People praise the telescope to great lengths. Sadly, they often forget about the astronomers behind it, who put in the hard work to make and establish the telescope.

 

Nancy Grace Roman was known as the Mother of Hubble. It was she who made this extraordinary project possible. The idea to place a telescope in space had been around for a while, but no one knew how it could be done. Roman took the idea seriously. She brought the two pillars—NASA engineers and astronomers—together. And they came up with a solution to this problem under her direction.

Nancy Grace Roman taking observations, Credit: Wikimedia/NASA/ESA

Roman faced a lot of opposition. The nature of the project she was trying to pursue was nearly impossible. And yet, she did not budge even a little. She persevered and turned the Hubble Space.

 

Telescope into reality. The Hubble Space Telescope pushed all the boundaries of human intellect and shed light on some of the farthest objects in the universe. The contribution of the Hubble is invaluable in astronomy. And it all rests on the shoulders of one woman who refused to give up.

 

Roman also encouraged women to become a part of astronomy. It appears the encouragement worked, as another woman soon earned distinction in astronomy… a woman who used Roman’s very own Hubble Space Telescope.

 

Emily Levesque studied the light coming from distant galaxies. Her focus was on galaxies that were making new stars. She also researched other important objects, especially gamma ray bursts (GRB). She was awarded the Annie Jump Cannon Award, which recognizes women postdoctoral students for excellent research and potential for research. The astronomer for whom the award is named, Annie Jump Cannon, co-developed a system of classifying stars by temperature and spectral type, called the Harvard Classification Scheme, and classified about 350,000 stars manually.

Emily Levesque
Emily Levesque. Credit: David Pitman

Sir Isaac Newton once said that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And that holds true for the women astronomers as well. They are making bridges for the up-and-coming women to find a strong footing in astronomy. As we see in the case of Roman and Levesque, one created Hubble, an one used it to look beyond the bounds of humanity.

Glossary

Astronauts – People who travel into space

 

Celestial – Anything that is in space

 

Space Telescope – A telescope that is placed outside the Earth’s atmosphere

 

Gamma Ray Burst – Explosions of stars that are extremely bright in nature and emit gamma rays

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.7

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 59.9

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