Astronomy and space science

Unlike other scientists, the astronomer or space scientist cannot touch, feel or take samples of their subject for detailed experimentation or chemical analysis. To find out about the universe beyond our small part of the solar system, we must look, listen and apply the universal laws of physics to learn what we can without any physical contact at all.

 

Fortunately, nature has provided us with the electromagnetic spectrum; every body emits radiation at a wide range of wavelengths in amounts depending on its temperature and the physical conditions surrounding it. Our eyes are only sensitive to a very small part of this spectrum, from violet light with a wavelength of about 40nm to red light with a wavelength of about 700nm.

 

The full spectrum consists of radiation at wavelengths from the ultra-high frequency (very short wavelength) gamma rays, through X-rays, the ultraviolet, infrared and microwave, to the longest wavelength radio waves. Special techniques are needed to detect each region of the spectrum, but all carry information about their source and travel through space at the speed of light. The Earth's atmosphere prevents much of the spectrum of radiation from reaching the Earth's surface - which is, of course, fortunate for humankind - but means astronomers have to send telescopes into space to sample the sky at X-ray wavelengths, for example.

 

So, what does an astronomer do? The popular image is of a lonely (male) scientist with his eye stuck to the end of a telescope in a cold dark dome writing down his observations in a notebook. The life of today's professional astronomer is very different. In the first place, there are equal opportunities for men and women. Today's research astronomer is likely to be a member of a team of scientists and engineers, each of whom brings special skills to solve problems about the working of the universe. These may be practical skills in building equipment, or in the ability to work with the laws of physics and mathematics to develop a theoretical model of the universe.

At UK universities, courses in astronomy and space science are usually included as part of a physics or mathematics degree. However, as the subject grows, so too does the number of opportunities to obtain a degree in astronomy, astrophysics or even aeronautics and space engineering, although the possible combinations with other related subjects is endless.

 

The monthly UK magazine 'Astronomy Now' carries a special supplement in its October issue each year, listing UK universities that offer undergraduate courses in astronomy and related subjects. Each entry has a short paragraph describing the courses available and contact details. In 1999 there were 46 entries, mostly with astronomy or astrophysics combined with physics or mathematics, but you may get optional courses on topics such as astronomical instrumentation, data analysis, galaxies and cosmology, radio astronomy, stellar structure and evolution, solar system research, theoretical astrophysics, aerospace engineering, the physics of black holes and a whole lot more. Most courses involve some practical work, such as observation via small telescopes on university campuses, or analysing data from some of the major astronomical observatories overseas - or even from space missions.

 

Most universities in England and Wales now offer a three-year BSc or a four year MSci or MPhys course at undergraduate level; in Scotland, you may have a fifth year. The degree option is usually reviewed at the end of the second year, and will be governed both by the student's wishes and academic ability. At least four universities also offer non-vocational courses, as astronomy is a popular subject for non-specialists too, and can be enjoyed at all levels - from the armchair enthusiast who enjoys reading books and watching television programmes, to the serious amateur astronomer who can make a real contribution to the subject.

 

Although there are many astronomy-related careers for which a first degree is sufficient - such as scientific journalism or working in a planetarium - if you wish to pursue a career in astronomical research it is essential to go beyond the first degree and study for a doctorate. However, to be accepted on a course leading to a PhD or DPhil, students may be surprised to learn that a prior qualification in astronomy is not essential. Although most students will start research with a background in physics or mathematics, there are also opportunities in other subjects such as computer science, engineering (particularly electronic), and even chemistry, geology or statistics. At postgraduate level, there are about 30 UK universities where you can take a course leading to a doctorate. The entry qualifications to these courses is usually a first or upper second-class degree at a UK university or its equivalent elsewhere.

 

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) publishes a (free) booklet, 'Postgraduate Opportunities in Astronomy and Geophysics', with full details of each of the university departments offering postgraduate degrees. For students seriously considering an astronomical career, it is a good idea to look through this booklet before making their undergraduate choice of university. These are the universities where active astronomical researchers group - you will be able to attend seminars and meet the scientists and research students who share your interests, a factor that can only be an advantage in your future career. In the booklet, you will find which groups specialise in radio or optical astronomy, for example, or perhaps ultra-violet astronomy where your telescope will be far above the Earth's atmosphere.

 

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) that directly finances the employment of research astronomers through universities or research establishments. It is also charged with funding the large and expensive facilities through which this research is conducted; for example, modern optical astronomy requires access to large telescopes on high mountain sites away from cloud and light pollution, where the skies are dark and the Earth's atmosphere is clear and still. No, we don't have any such sites in the UK, but with funding from STFC, British astronomers have played a major part in building telescopes in a number of overseas sites, such as the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales, the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes in the Canary Islands, and under current development are the twin 8.1 metre Gemini telescopes on Hawaii and in Chile.

 

To foster a greater collaboration at grass roots level in our partner countries, and to increase the number of astronomers there prior to the telescopes becoming operational, the Gemini Studentships scheme enables students from Argentina, Brazil and Chile to study for an astronomy PhD in Great Britain. STFC will make up to three awards per year, one to each of the participating countries. The student selection process is co-ordinated by the Gemini project officer in each country. STFC also has an agreement with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), Tenerife, Spain, to support a maximum of two IAC students at any one time to study for an astronomy PhD in Great Britain. The Spanish Studentship scheme operates in a similar way to the Gemini scheme - the IAC coordinates the selection process, and the successful students receive an identical award to their UK counterparts.

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