How to Be an Astronomer

By | February 24, 2014

We are all under the same sky. But Australians are no mere stargazers when it comes to space.

If anything, Australian astronomers have recently found what could be the oldest star known to humankind. Three times older than the Sun, the as-yet named SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 reportedly formed 13.6 billion years ago, making it barely younger than the universe itself.

This news comes on the heels of the passing of Ray Stalker, an Australian astrophysicist famous for pioneering the scramjet, one of the world’s fastest jet engines.

As you may see, you need not fly to Cape Canaveral or Russia to study space. In Australia or with Australians, the sky is really the limit.

What it takes to be an astronomer

At some point your life you may have had an epiphany to become an astronomer. Or you mayhave dreamed about it all your life. Either way, astronomy is hard science like any other, and you have to lay the foundation early on. If you excel in mathematics and physics in high school, you already have a headstart toward your career objectives.

This foundation will serve you well when you finally take up astronomy courses, which are peppered with the finer branches of mathematics, physics, engineering, and information technology. During your undergraduate degree or earlier, you will have to be acquainted with Unix-like operating systems, which are better equipped than Windows to deal with convoluted calculations associated with celestial bodies.

Don’t forget fluency in English, since you will be handling plenty of theses, proposals, and all kinds of research papers. Specifically, you must master the style of scientific writing, although it is something you will organically assimilate by reading lots of scientific journals during your undergraduate years. Good oral communication is also requisite, seeing as you are expected to do a lot of presentations in front of an audience. During your undergraduate program, you are expected to present multiple research projects before your peers.

Good universities and colleges for astronomy

Although all Australian universities are invested in scientific research, some have more ample astronomy capabilities than others. Some run observatories within their campuses and permanently include astronomers in their teaching staff.

You have the full spectrum in the way of studying astronomy in Australia. Choose from full-blown PhDs in astronomy to units under an overall physics program. You can even take up astronomy courses as part of a General Studies course. With hard work and diligence, you can parlay an honours or research masters degree to a Master of Science (MSc) or doctorate, and finally become a full-fledged astronomer.

Many world-renowned luminaries in astronomy and astrophysics hail from Australian National University (ANU). ANU’s Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics (RSAA) has the continent’s most expansive graduate program in the said sciences.

In fact, the discovery of the star was made at the university, specifically at its famous Siding Spring Observatory on Mt. Stromlo, where the exceptionally powerful telescope called SkyMapper resides. In addition, Stalker was known to have undertaken a readership in physics at ANU.

Stalker studied once at the University of Sydney, the first in Australia to offer a degree in aeronautical engineering. But the University of Queensland has a bragging right in that it is where Stalker gained fame as Australia’s first professor of space engineering. In his tenure at the university, Stalker caught the eye of NASA and other space flight agencies by developing his eponymous shock tubes.

Curtin University of Technology in Perth is unique for its radio astronomy engineering programs. Also in Perth, the University of Western Australia is a compelling choice for prospective astronomers due to its world-renowned gravitational research centre.

Down in the University of Tasmania, astronomy students can take advantage of observatories on Mt. Pleasant and Mt. Canopus.

Casual astronomers

For the casual astronomer, Australian universities are known to offer evening lectures or online courses as part of their external studies offerings. These are ideal for hobbyists and general science educators.

Whether you intend to pursue a career in astronomy or simply deepen your knowledge of the heavens, Australian institutions will help you reach for the stars.

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