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.
Degree: BSc in physics, mathematics or engineering, or a specific undergraduate astronomy degree.
Other recommended subjects at university: pure and applied mathematics, computer science, statistics, electronics and chemistry.
Undergraduate astronomy courses are offered at several universities.
The BSc degree in astrophysics is by no means limited to a career in astronomy. It gives a solidbasis for various other graduate studies in science, technology or engineering fields. Graduates will be well prepared for job opportunities in areas related to astronomy, such as instrumentation design, software development, digital processing, computer science, telecommunication, laboratories, teaching, science education and writing, and even business.
Postgraduate: A master’s degree is required for those wishing to pursue a career in the field of applied research and development. Those with a bachelor’s degree can be employed as research assistants andtechnicians.
A PhD in astronomy or astrophysics from an accredited university is generally the basic academic requirement for becoming an astrophysicist.
Astrophysicists usually start their careers as a fellowor intern in a research institute. Modern laboratory and research techniques can be learned while assisting advanced scientists during such internship programmes.
Those with a post doctoral degree and relevant work experience can apply for permanent positions in government laboratories.
Graduates in astronomy are equipped to conduct research at the cutting edge of astrophysics and space science and will have the broad science skills needed in any modern technological society.
Because of the shortage of local astronomers, there are good employment prospects for an academic career in astrophysics, particularly in South Africa.
Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA)
P O Box 9
South African Astronomical Observatory
Old Fraserburg Road
P O Box 25
Tel: (023) 571-1205