Careers in Astronomy

Astronaut

Nowadays, astronauts work aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a research facility in space, where they carry out scientific experiments in a microgravity environment. Astronauts need to complete a very intensive training and evaluation period before they are allowed to go into space. This usually lasts for 2 years. Candidate astronauts are required to have a university degree in Natural Sciences, Engineering or Medicine. Their height should be between 1.53 - 1.90 m, and they should have an excellent vision and good physical and psychological health. Experience as an aircraft pilot is usually an advantage. Their training and evaluation phase includes education in robotics, ISS systems, extravehicular activity skills and Russian language. So far only about 560 astronauts have been selected from many thousands of candidates worldwide. During each mission, astronauts have a specific role: they can be the commander, the pilot or a mission specialist. They conduct scientific experiments, perform extravehicular activities such as repairing instruments, using remote manipulator systems and carry out any tasks communicated to them by the ground station.

Meteorologist

They study and forecast the Earth's atmospheric phenomena. Before the launch of any spacecraft, an accurate weather prediction is very important to ensure a safe and successful the mission. Meteorologists need to make sure that during the launch window, the winds are not too strong, there are no thunderstorms within a safety radius, the layer of clouds is not too thick, does not contain rain and is neither too hot nor too cold.

Astrophysicist

They observe the Universe with the goal of understanding how it formed, how it evolved to become what it is today and what it will be like in the future. To do this, astrophysicists study planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, etc. They use telescopes both on Earth and in space, many of which are sensitive to frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to our eyes, like microwaves, radio, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma-rays. They also develop physical theories and build computer simulations to model and help us understand phenomena in the Universe.

Earth Observations Scientists

They gather images and data from the Earth´s surface and atmosphere made with cameras and other instruments placed on a satellite orbiting the Earth, or on an aircraft flying over a particular region, or even on a drone flying over your backyard. They use the information collected to learn more about the weather, the damage caused to a forest in a storm, the area flooded after a strong rainfall event, the area of a country planted with different crops, the temperature of the water in the sea and many more phenomena. The data that they use essentially give us a bird´s eye view of the Earth.

Plasma Physicists

They study plasmas, which are a state of matter that occurs when a gas is so hot that all its atoms are split into electrons and ions, which can move independently of each other. Plasma is created, for example, when a spacecraft travelling at several kilometres per second enters the atmospheric boundary of a planet or Moon. One of the aims of plasma physicists is to obtain a detailed understanding of the physics of these atmospheric entry plasmas. They thus work together with engineers and scientists in the design of spacecrafts to ensure their structural integrity.

Astrogeologists

study the geological evolution of our ‘rocky’ companions in the Solar System, seeking to understand and reconstruct the evolution of their interiors and surfaces. Because it is not yet possible to carry out fieldwork on bodies such as Mars, Titan or asteroids, their geologic evolution is mainly studied by analysing observations from spacecrafts together with data gathered by robotic missions on their surface.

Space Weather Scientists

They monitor the “weather” within the Solar System, particularly around Earth, as it varies due to the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field. They track the effect of solar eruptions, disturbances in the solar wind, changes in the magnetic field and the incidence of cosmic rays that can all affect spacecrafts. All electronic devices in a spacecraft are sensitive to electric charges and it is crucial to observe the conditions of space weather to prevent failure due to radiation damage and electrical charging of the spacecraft.

Mathematicians

They use mathematics and statistics to solve scientific, engineering and business problems that come up during a space mission. They might create models to improve the aerodynamics of spacecrafts, implement mathematical functions to optimise the performance of algorithms for analysing images, aspects of instrumentation, and many other applications.

Astrobiologists

An astrobiologist studies the possibility that life exists beyond the Earth. Astrobiologists try to understand how life is formed and how life can survive in many different types of environments. This often involves the study of life in extreme conditions right here on Earth. They observe various planets and moons to see if conditions there could support life. Some astrobiologists are involved in projects that search for radio signals from intelligent life in the Universe, while others look for places where the simplest forms of life may exist. An astrobiologist is usually an expert in biology as well as in astronomy. In order to find out if life can exist in other worlds, an astrobiologist spends a lot of time in laboratories, testing and recording the lifecycle of bacteria that can survive in extreme conditions, and even looking at fossils of the earliest life forms.

Archeaoastronomer

Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people have understood, conceptualised and used the phenomena in the sky and what role the sky played in their cultures. They do this by analysing their material remains. According to historical and ethnographic records, most - if not all - societies have looked up at the sky and related to it. The stories, myths, art, religious beliefs, rituals and symbolisms of many cultures are associated with the Sun, Moon, stars and planets. However, when a study extends further back into prehistory (before writing was established), researchers must rely on the remains and ruins left behind. In this case, the research is based on the archaeological record, which is used to reveal an ancient society’s notion of the location and movement of objects in the nightsky. Archaeoastronomy, therefore, focuses on the material evidence present in the archaeological record. For instance, archaeoastronomers can recognise whether particular structures (houses or monuments) were intentionally built in such a way to capture sunlight on particularly important days of the year. Archaeoastronomy, therefore, is one more element that can help us make sense of and understand past societies, their beliefs and worldviews.

Engineers (needed in 'Space')

Mechanical Engineers

design, analyse and manufacture all the instruments and structures that are launched into space - from robotics to rocket engines and life-support systems. They test how the equipment reacts to the vibrations, temperature shifts and extreme accelerations that the spacecraft has to endure during launch and orbit.

Software Engineers

are responsible for programming the instructions that will tell the system what to do in a given situation. As space missions become more and more automated, they require a much larger software control over all elements of the spacecraft. Thus, software engineers are needed for nearly all domains of the space mission.

Ground Segment Engineers

work at ground-based stations that provide support and communicate with spacecrafts. These stations are generally equipped with antennae, transmitters, receivers and other instruments. The engineers ensure the reception of signals from the spacecraft, decode this data and deliver it to the final user. They also send commands to the spacecraft to activate or deactivate specific functions, for example to correct its position in orbit.

Electrical Engineers

ensure that all devices of a spacecraft that depend on electrical power operate perfectly and for sustained periods of time. They look after the power supply with its solar arrays supported by batteries, the intelligence of the satellite with its processor and memory, the attitude control system, the telecommunication system and the navigation system.

Propulsion Engineers

are responsible for the chemical rocket propulsion systems of spacecrafts. Launchers, satellites, probes and space vehicles require specific fuels and engines to propel them into space, place them into orbit, or, in the case of deep space missions, to provide energy for their interplanetary flight. They develop and design the most suited propulsion system for the spacecraft.

Aerospace Engineers

design, develop, manufacture and test spacecrafts, satellites and other aerospace products. They develop new technologies for the structural design of the spacecraft, guidance and navigation, control, instrumentation, communication, robotics, and propulsion of the spacecraft.

Chemical Engineers

work on many aspects of space missions. They can develop better batteries, more efficient fuels, better radiation shielding, etc. Chemical engineers also do research on new sources of fuel such as hydrogen cells, bio-refineries, algae factories and fusion reactions, which can be applied to space technology in the future.

Assurance and Safety Engineers

try to ensure that all safety measures are rigorously taken to prevent anything going wrong in space. They make sure that all materials, mechanical parts and electrical components used are the most reliable available. They test them against failure to make sure they are in optimal condition and will work well throughout the whole duration of the space mission.

Spacecraft System Engineers

A spacecraft systems engineer is a person who designs space missions and their vehicles by working together with engineers specialised in the different necessary disciplines (propulsion, thermal control, structures, etc). The systems engineer ensures the overall integrity of the design considering the space segment, the ground segment and the launch vehicle. Spacecraft systems engineers work in projects from all space fields: launch vehicles, Earth observation missions, telecommunications, interplanetary scientific missions, astronomy and fundamental physics, human spaceflight involving astronauts and space stations, research and development projects for new technologies, etc. The role of the systems engineer is an interdisciplinary one with work possibilities in many different fields. The limit is the Universe!

Material Engineers

A materials engineer is a person who verifies that the materials used in the spacecraft and the techniques used to manufacture them will allow the spacecraft to survive and perform in the space environment, throughout the life of the space mission. This involves ensuring that the various materials – metals, plastics, ceramics or composites – do not have any defect and can withstand the demanding conditions in space. This also means verifying that the manufacturing methods used produce good quality materials. Materials engineers also research and develop future materials and production processes. They try to identify new materials which will make the spacecraft lighter, better performing, and able to reach destinations where we have not been yet. They also develop new manufacturing methods that will make the spacecraft less costly to produce and more environmentally friendly.

Sources: Space Awareness' Space Careers booklet | website , Wikipedia, NASA