Astronomy is by far the oldest of the sciences. Ancient peoples without even a written language made a careful study of the motions of the sun and moon, in Africa and elsewhere, building stone temples and monuments tied to astronomical ideas. Babylonian and Greek astronomers were writing detailed mathematical descriptions of celestial motion more than 2000 years ago. Today’s astronomers explore the nature of celestial objects ranging from planets and stars (including our own sun) to galaxies containing perhaps a million million stars, clusters and much larger structures of galaxies, and the universe itself and its formation ten to twenty thousand million years ago.
What is an Astronomer?
Astronomers are scientists who study the origins, evolution, physical and chemical properties of objects that can be observed in the sky, which are outside the Earth as well as the processes involving them.
What Astronomers Do?
Astronomers work to increase our understanding of how the Universe began, how it has evolved and will evolve. They study how interstellar dust, gas clouds, planets, stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies came to exist and how they work. To do this the only tools available are light, physics and mathematics.
Characteristics of an Astronomer
- A serious interest and above-average aptitude for physics and mathematics.
- Ability to work alone and in a team.
- Good computer skills.
- Perseverance, individual initiative, patience and the ability to handle disappointment.
- Good communication skills.
Minimum entry requirement for university:
Matric exemption with physical science and mathematics on the higher grade. Computer science and additional mathematics recommened.
Typical undergraduate degree:
Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in physics, astronomy, mathematics or engineering.
Other recommended subjects at university:
Pure and applied mathematics, computer science, statistics and electronics.
Universities offering undergraduate astronomy courses:
Universities of South Africa (UNISA), Cape Town (UCT), KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Witwatersrand (Wits), Free Stats (UFS), Johannesburg (UJ), Western Cape (UWC), and Rhodes University (RU).
The National Astrophysics & Space Science Programme (NASSP) is a cooperative, combined graduate programme launched by the South African astronomical community and is hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT). It currently offers an Extentended Honours, Honours and Masters programmes in astronomy/astrophysics and space science. The Extended Honours and Honours programmes last one year each and the Masters programme lasts up to two years. Students are supervised by scientists from the universities and the specialist research institutions doing work in astronomy such as the SAAO and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO).
A fundamental prerequisite for all professional positions in astronomy is a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) that consists of an original research thesis.
Graduates in astronomy are equipped to conduct research at the cutting edge of astrophysics and space science and have the broad science skills needed in any modern technological society. They would normally find employment at astronomical research facilities (Observatories), university departments and are also highly valued in fields as diverse as aerospace, financial services and telecommunication. Particularly appreciated are the astronomers’ abilities in understanding basic scientific issues and in conceptualizing and evaluating systems-level solutions.
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