An astrophysicist is an astronomer who studies the physical components of celestial objects. As an academic subject, astrophysics is a combination of physics and astronomy. Astrophysicists study the physics of the universe along with the interactions between various objects of outer space. Subjects such as electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, molecular physics and quantum mechanics come within the scope of modern astrophysics research.
Astrophysicists can either study the theoretical aspects of space or apply their fundamental knowledge of physics to explore various occurrences in space, such as dark matter, black holes, stellar evolution, super clusters and neutron stars. They use their knowledge of physics, mathematics and computing to investigate the formation of planets, stars and galaxies.
Research and development is the primary focus of an astrophysicist. Basic research is conducted to gather scientific knowledge, while advanced research may lead to the development of scientific devices and research equipment. The responsibility of astrophysicists includes analysis of data and statistics, archiving, plotting, logging, evaluating and reporting the results of the research. They may have to coordinate data received from various satellites and telescopes, and use theoretical models to compare this data and align images. Observational astrophysicists work to maximise viewing time of different stellar events.
Possible tasks are to:
South Africa has a long tradition in astronomy, due to its favourable climate and geographical location. The following exciting installations are situated here:
SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope, is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. It is located in Sutherland, and is able to record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye.
MeerKAT, the Karoo Array Telescope, is the world’s first radio telescope, consisting of 64 dish-shaped antennae, each 12 m in size, and is a prototype for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
SKA will be the world’s biggest telescope and one of the biggest scientific projects ever. Many large antennae and other radio-wave receivers, spread over 3 000 kilometres, will be linked together by optic fibre cables, creating a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful, and 10 000 times faster than any other radio telescope currently in existence. The signals produced will be processed and interpreted by computers, forming images. The major portion of SKA will be built in the Northern Cape Province, and another section in Western Australia.
In addition to their grasp of astronomy, mathematics, physics and general principles of science, astrophysicists must have an inquisitive, creative mind. Formulating new concepts about distant astronomical phenomena often requires the ability to visualise complex concepts completely, as well as being able to express such ideas mathematically. Astrophysicists will sometimes work with other scientists and researchers, and the need to communicate effectively may be required. However, they may also spend long hours performing solitary research and calculations, and need to be able to operate independently and outside social interactions.
Astrophysicists tend to work in an indoor, comfortable environment, often in a laboratory or classroom setting. They sometimes travel to distant locations to collect data, especially when the telescopes they use are located in remote areas. Those that work for a university can both teach classes and conduct research.
Because of the shortage of local astronomers, there are good employment prospects for an academic career in astrophysics, particularly in South Africa.
Botswana International University of Science and Technology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, North-West University, University of Cape Town, University of Johannesburg, University of Mauritius, University of Namibia, University of Pretoria, University of Stellenbosch, University of the Free State, Walter Sisulu University