Astronomers using a telescope
Astronomers using a telescope
Credit: Astrophysics Research Institute

Jump down to Career Profiles

Perhaps the most obvious career relating to space and astronomy is ‘star-gazing’. Looking into the Universe and trying to figure out what is going on. People on this career path are called astrophysicists or astronomers. Astrophysics is applying physics to the Universe. It is unlike most other science because we cannot control experiments. Astrophysics is an observational science, rather than an experimental one.

Astronomers must look at what's going on in space using telescopes. They try to work out what happened before and after the snapshot they see. This is only possible because in space there are so many objects to look at. Billions of galaxies, containing billions of stars, with billions of planets orbiting around them. It is only by looking at many examples of the same object that they can predict what is happening. Astronomy relies heavily on maths and statistics to back up the theories.

Of course unlike a hundred years ago, not all astronomers look through telescopes. Now they can programme complex computers to model what they see. The programmes are told to follow the laws of physics, and then the simulations are forwards and backwards in time to get a fuller understanding of what is happening.

In astrophysics, you need to combine the computer simulations, and the observations from telescopes, to be sure about a theory.

Until 2015, we could only see light from space to study what was happening. Then astronomers discovered gravitational waves. These are signals from space which are not made of light, but tiny vibrations caused by massive objects colliding in space. This gives astronomers a whole new way of studying the Universe.

The most direct path to a career in astrophysics is to study the subject at university. This generally requires specialising in maths and physics at school. However, there are many paths into astronomy, with some people coming from backgrounds in computing, maths, engineering and chemistry, among other subjects.

In the career profiles on this page, you can find out more about people who were also interested in star-gazing.