What are the different kinds of astronomers? (Intermediate)

What are the different kinds of astronomers and what do they do?

There are a couple different ways to classify astronomy jobs. The simplest is "observationalist" or "theorist." Observationalists take data with telescopes or spacecraft and then explain what it means based on current knowledge -- or, sometimes, find that what they have observed can't yet be explained. Theorists use physics to make computer models or simulations of things in the universe, and to develop new explanations or predictions of astrophysical phenomena. However, many times this isn't a clear distinction since observationalists use physics theories to explain their data, and theorists' models and predictions have to match observations. When observers discover something that astronomy can't yet explain, or when theorists make a new prediction and want to know whether observations would match their new idea, they work together closely to take next steps.

Another way to classify astronomers is by subject specialty. For example, I'm a planetary scientist; I study planets and moons. Other astronomers include stellar astronomers (study stars), solar astronomers (the sun), galactic astronomers (study the galaxy), extragalactic astronomers (who study all different galaxies and the structure of the universe) or cosmologists (study the origin and evolution of the universe).

Your specialty can also be in the use of a specific telescope type. For example, there are radio astronomers who study many different objects with radio telescopes. There are also instrumentationalists who specialize in building new equipment and finding new ways to observe. Sometimes you'll be multiple things, like an extragalactic astronomer and cosmologist, or a planetary scientist who builds new instruments.

There aren't really clear-cut distinctions here either, but these kinds of classifications are generally what astronomers will respond with when you ask them "What kind of astronomer are you?"

Page last updated on June 19, 2015.

About the Author

Lynn Carter

Lynn uses radar astronomy to study the planets, especially Venus. She got her PhD in Astronomy from Cornell in Summer 2004 and is now working at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. on the Mars Express radar.

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