An ultraviolet portrait of our galactic neighbor, Andromeda, taken with NASA’s Swift satellite.
Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI science center. Sutter is also host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and leads AstroTours around the world. Sutter contributed this article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Jumping into the world of astronomy and physics as a career can seem daunting, especially for precocious high schoolers with a passion for the field.
It’s relatively easy to get interested in astronomy, especially as a kid — after all, what’s cooler than monster black holes, stars and planets galore, swirling nebulas and galaxies? And what can’t be accessed through online videos or books can be enjoyed through the simple and visceral pleasure of a clear, dark night. [Astronomy Gear Guide: Tools, Tips and Tricks to Stargaze Like a Boss]
There are all sorts of awesome sights in the sky. What’s not to love? But as soon as curious youngsters dip their toes past the pretty pictures, they’re bound to find that the world of the professional astronomer is full of complicated theories, mountains of data to painstakingly analyze, and whiteboards full of tedious calculations.
It turns out that nature does not reveal its secrets willingly or easily. It takes countless hours of work by armies of dedicated professionals to understand the deepest workings of our cosmos.
So how does one make the jump? How do you go from a basic interest in the field to a full-fledged independent scientific research track? What are the skills you’ll need? If you’re considering a college degree in astronomy or physics, or know someone in your life who is, read on.
You are not yet ready
The key message I try to convey about an astro-career is that it takes time. Lots of time. You’ll need four to six years just for a bachelor’s degree, which is true of many other professions. Then comes graduate school, which can take anywhere from five years for theorists up to seven or eight for experimentalists and observers. Then comes a postdoctoral research appointment, where your on-the-job training continues outside of your Ph.D. institution. In astronomy and physics, you typically have two or three of these two-to-five-year stints before you’re considered ready for a faculty job at a major research university.
So by the time you’re middle-age, congrats: You now officially have a stable career in science!
Part of the delay in going from pursuing a degree to getting a dedicated job is the general lack of funding in astronomy and physics, and I’ll talk about that more in another article. But another part is that it simply takes time to bring someone up to speed in academic research. You need your base knowledge, which is hundreds of years of accomplishments and accumulated wisdom compacted into a few short classes. Classical physics, statistical mechanics, relativity, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics form the backbone of a physics degree, with some more work on optics and common astrophysical processes added to extend to an astronomy degree. [The Weirdest Jobs In Science]
Classes usually peter out once you’re a couple of years into graduate school. The remainder of your time is spent working on your dissertation research under the guidance of your adviser, and that’s where the real training comes in. That’s when you learn how to be an actual scientist, not just have science facts and methods shoved into your cranium day after day.
It’s over the years of your thesis research that you learn how to prepare a poster or presentation at a conference without looking like an idiot, how to handle questions from competing researchers who are trying to poke holes in your work, how to take naps during conference calls, how to shove all the right introductory fluff and jargon into a paper, how to read a paper while looking for clues of what to work on next, how to ask intelligent-sounding and relevant questions during a seminar, how to beat the analysis software into submission, how to properly format a figure for publication, and on and on.
During those years, you’re also brought up to speed on the true state of the art in the field, and you learn things that the classes, with curricula probably designed two decades ago, simply haven’t caught up on. You learn what people are working on right now, and where you can push to advance the current limits of human understanding.
In these roles, your adviser is crucial. This person is not only your mentor but also your colleague and co-worker. Initially, they guide you and help shape your research directions, but very quickly, they’ll be learning from you about your latest discoveries and newest methods. That is why they hire you, after all — to train you at first, but with the aim of making you useful.
While physics and astronomy require a healthy dose of mathematics (either in theoretical calculations or observational analysis), almost all of it is learned over the course of your graduate career. Even advanced undergraduate classes teach you only the basic outlines of the actual math you will employ throughout your career.
So if the math seems overwhelming, don’t fret. You’re never expected to jump into a full-time research gig fully equipped with all the mathematical tools at your disposal. They’re taught to you, fed to you, slowly and steadily, over the course of years. Techniques that seem like straight-up wizardry become, after sufficient practice, as second nature as blinking. Not up to speed with the latest computer programming techniques? That will come too, whether you like it or not.
The truth is that you’re not expected to be an expert at the most difficult parts of being a scientist. That’s the entire point of the long, drawn-out training process. What you are expected to have is something far simpler: pure determination. It’s only through grit and sheer force of will that you’ll be able to handle the workload, the long hours, the blind alleys, the outright failures, the critiques and the wrestling with nature.
If you have a healthy dose of perseverance and a lot of curiosity, you have what it takes to be a scientist.
Learn more by listening to the episode “How does one become an astrophysicist?” on the Ask A Spaceman podcast, available on iTunes and on the Web at askaspaceman.com. Thanks to @92Rufino and Vicki K. for the questions that led to this piece! Ask your own question on Twitter using #AskASpaceman or by following Paul @PaulMattSutter and facebook.com/PaulMattSutter.
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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover
Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.
A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020.
The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.
Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]
The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.
A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.
The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface.
“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”
There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.
A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.
Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.
SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.
“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”
Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets
Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.
The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.
Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports.
That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]
Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.
This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.
But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.
For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.
“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”
Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.
“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”
The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.
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