Astronomy is by far the oldest of the sciences. Ancient societies without even a written language made a careful study of the motions of the sun and moon. In Africa and elsewhere, civilisations built stone temples and monuments tied to astronomical ideas. Babylonian and Greek astronomers were writing detailed mathematical descriptions of the movement of stars and planets more than 2000 years ago. Today’s astronomers explore celestial objects like planets, stars including our own sun, galaxies containing billions of stars, even larger clusters of galaxies, and the formation and behaviour of the universe itself.

What is an astronomer?

Astronomers are scientists who study the origins, evolution, and characteristics of objects that can be observed in the sky beyond Earth, as well as the overall nature of the universe.

What do astronomers do?

Astronomers try to understand how the Universe began, how it has evolved and will evolve in the future. They study how interstellar dust, gas clouds, planets, stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies came to exist and how they work. They do this by observing the light from these objects through telescopes and other instruments and using physics,  mathematics and data science to understand what they are seeing.

Characteristics of an astronomer

  • A serious interest and aptitude in physics, mathematics, and computer science
  • Perseverance,  patience, self-motivation, and the ability to handle disappointment
  • Good computer skills
  • Good communication skills

What to study

Astronomers need to study physics and mathematics at university, typically through a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in physics, astronomy, mathematics or engineering. To get into this degree, you need a Matric exemption with physical science and mathematics on the higher grade. Computer science and additional mathematics are recommended. Other recommended subjects at university include pure and applied mathematics, computer science, statistics and electronics.

In South Africa, you can study astronomy at:

Career Opportunities

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 knowledge economy. They would normally find employment at astronomical research facilities (observatories), university departments and government research institutions like the SAAO. Outside of astronomy, graduates would also find work in fields like data science, software development, aerospace, financial services and telecommunication.

Download SAAO's Career Brochure