The dream for most people who are interested in astronomy when they consider getting into the field is to spend every night looking at the stars in an open field with a high-tech telescope categorizing constellations, finding new comets, and learning the cool, mythological names that stars have. But the truth is the day-to-day reality for astronomers looks very different.
Astronomers spend most of their time in front of computers, analyzing data and figuring out how to solve complex problems using math and their brains. While that is also cool, it is important to understand how does the day of an astronomer looks like and where they do their work so you can decide if it’s something that you would find interesting. The part that is true about the vision, thankfully, is that you will sometimes get to play with really high-tech equipment and you will get access to the latest and most powerful computer networks and telescopes.
So, where do astronomers work?
Astronomers work in academia, schools, government agencies like NASA or the European Space Agency, and private companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin.
After asking around and digging up some stats we have come up with the following graph that shows the approximate distribution. After that, let’s take a look at each of the places individually. Click the image to zoom in.
Government Agencies (NASA, ESA, JAXA, JPL)
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is the first place most people think of when they think “where do astronomers work?”. However, while NASA does offer a lot of astronomy job positions, it is not the place with the greatest percentage of employed astronomers.
Astronomers at NASA can work on many different projects. Some take the observations and data gathered using satellites and analyze them to try to discover new stars and planets or to study how and why they behave in a certain way.
Other astronomers at NASA collaborate with engineers and other scientists in the design and testing of new equipment that will help us get a better of the universe.
Working at an observatory is the closest thing to looking through a telescope that an astronomer will do at work. Observatories are places with gigantic telescopes that are used to look at very distant parts of the universe. Building an observatory costs millions of dollars, so astronomers from around the world have to share them and submit proposals detailing what they want to use it for just so they can get to use it for a few nights.
The location of an observatory is very important because only in some regions you can get to look at certain areas of the universe. Good weather conditions, clear skies, and low light pollution are also relevant. Because of this, most observatories are located in very specific geographical regions where all of these conditions are met, like deserts.
Other Government agencies
NASA is not the only government agency that employs astronomers and astrophysicists. Some other agencies like the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Observatory also employ astronomers.
In these agencies, astronomers focus mostly on scientific research and the development of new equipment. They have made multiple discoveries. The Naval Research Laboratory, for example, lists under their accomplishments the first identification of stellar x-rays and many discoveries in radio astronomy and cosmic ray physics.
According to the American Astronomical Society, about one-third of all professional astronomers work for federal agencies or federally funded observatories.
In recent years, private companies have started to enter the aerospace industry. Companies like SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, or Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson are trying to bring mankind to space for colonization, research, or tourism purposes.
These companies employ astronomers, astrophysicists, and other scientists to help them solve problems with instrumentation, observation, and data study. Work at a private company is more focused on practical applications and less focused on research.
Other aerospace companies include:
- Orbital Sciences
- Sierra Nevada Corporation
- Xcor Aerospace
- Made in space
- Ad Astra Rocket Company
- Blue Origin (founded by Jeff Bezos)
It is estimated that about 10% of astronomers work for private space companies.
Planetariums and science museums
The job of astronomers working at planetariums or museums is to communicate and inform the general public to try to get them interested in astronomy and space, as well as explain why it is important for everyone. They are sometimes also responsible for selecting and helping develop the material that is shown in the various exhibitions. Because of this, on top of their education, they also require good communication skills.
A famous astrophysicist working at a planetarium is Neil Degrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City whom you might have seen on TV talking about science or narrating the Cosmos series on National Geographic. He has taken his role as a communicator to the next level and has helped many people get interested and curious about space.
Universities and Colleges
More than half of astronomers and astrophysicists in the U.S. work in universities as professors. Even when most of their time is spent teaching, they are a major source for astronomy research as they have more freedom to choose the subjects they want to research than in other places.
There are two types of astronomers working in universities. Observational astronomers and theoretical astronomers.
Observational astronomers will spend a few days or weeks working at an observatory every year watching the parts of the universe they want to study. The rest of the year, they analyze the data they have collected. Theoretical astronomers, on the other hand, might not even use telescopes and they will do most of their work using only computers and whiteboards.
It is also common for astronomers to teach other courses like math and physics.
A common job for astronomers is to serve as a communicator for many different types of media.
Astronomers can constantly work as writers for science and general interest magazines and news sites, they can also do book writing, podcasting, and Youtube channels. Just as astronomers working at planetariums, their objective is to communicate, solve people’s questions, and show them the beauty of space.
Jobs in other fields
Because of their background and education, astronomers and astrophysicists can also take jobs in other fields that require similar analytical skills like the following:
- Data science
- Computer science
- Artificial intelligence