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In order to answer the question, ‘what does an astronomer do?’ we need to understand what astronomy is. Astronomy is the study of the stars, moons, and other celestial bodies that make up the universe. It looks at what these bodies are composed of, how they move, and how they came into existence. Astronomers are the people that do the studying. Many astronomers specialize in a particular area of astronomy, as it is a field of science that stretches across numerous disciplines. It is not a science that includes interaction with the subject but instead by measuring the energy a celestial body emits or absorbs – or the ‘motion’ of the body – how one celestial body affects another, gathering data, formulating hypothesis, and then testing their hypothesis to come to a logical conclusion.
Astronomers do not work a typical nine to five day although many of them are professors and teachers in addition to doing their astronomical research. They do spend a lot of time working on theories, studying data and computing models with the aid of a computer, and attending meetings. If they also teach, they must take time to prepare class lectures and grade papers. Organizations such as NOAO (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) are research institutions which allow the astronomers on their staff to use 50% of their time on their own research and the rest maintaining and improving the NOAO observation facilities. Often, NOAO will work with NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In order to be an astronomer you must love star gazing and be intrigued by the universe at large. You should have good observation skills and be able to understand what you are seeing. Proficiency at math, analysis, logic and science is a must, and you should have some solid computer skills. You also need to be patient because you may be required to work on complex astronomical problems for years. Finally, good communication skills are also a must as you will need to be able to communicate your findings not only to the scientific community, but the world at large.
By studying astronomy, we learn about the sun and our solar systems as well as the galaxy and larger universe around us. It is this science that helps up understand how the sun and the moon affect the earth and our daily lives, such as the moving of the tides, or brief periods of electronic disturbances when sunspots run through their 11 year cycle or when solar flares become more active. It also helps us understand the composition of the earth as compared to others planets and how all of them make up this great solar system we are a part of.
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The material was created for ESA by the Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre and for NASA by STScI under Contract NAS5-26555