Our guide to astronomy
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to astronomy

First published date December 03 2013 Amended date May 01 2015

Can you tell the difference between a shooting star and a passing plane? If so, why not consider a course in astronomy? Astronomy is the study of celestial objects – moons, planets, stars, supernovas, galaxies – and other far-off mysteries.

Astronomy is concerned with physical, chemical and mathematical properties of such objects, and hopes to shed light on their evolution. In doing so, it also sheds light on the Earth's evolution. Lying somewhere in the night sky lies the truth as to how the Earth exploded into life.  

Early civilizations - the Babylonians, the Ancient Greeks, the Maya - have all tried to fathom out the sky. And we still haven't cracked it. So embark on an astronomy course and help us understand the greatest mystery in the universe: the universe itself.


Where could an astronomy course lead?

The scientific, mathematical and analytical skills you gain on an astronomy course will throw open doors onto a great diversity of industries. You might choose to work as an astronomer, working in a university, observatory or space agency like NASA. An astronomy course might lead to a job helping run space programmes as an engineer or computer programmer. After all, the space rovers that are currently crawling across the surface of Mars had to get there somehow. You could even unleash your passion for astronomy on others and become a teacher. You might alternatively direct your career towards public outreach, writing press releases informing the public about exciting developments in astronomy.


What do you do on an astronomy course?

You could do a beginner’s course in astronomy, suitable for anyone who loves astronomy and wants to get up-to-date on current developments. You might become an authority on topics ranging from dark matter to the Milky Way, the Big Bang to the death of stars, white dwarfs to supergiants. Students can expect to use astronomy instruments like telescopes, visit planetariums and observatories, and learn how to use star charts and computer-based images.

If your aim is to become an astronomer, you will need a degree in astronomy or physics. Astronomy degree courses are few and far between. But several universities offer astrophysics courses, which is a mixture of physics and astronomy. Both astrophysics and astronomy degree courses typically last three years, with an opportunity to study a year in industry between years two and three. Once qualified as an astronomer, you might want to continue studying in a specialised area of astronomy, such as planetary science or the formation of galaxies.


How can you choose the right astronomy course for you?

Astronomy courses range from beginner to advanced courses, so make sure you choose a course that best suits your level and goals. For example, if you are interested in spending a lot of time using telescopes and observing the sky, choose a course that provides this opportunity. Also, make sure that you have the prerequisites required to take the course that you desire.


What kind of person do you need to be?

To make the most of an astronomy course you need to be:

·         eager to develop an in-depth understanding of the universe.

·         knowledgeable - and prepared to learn - about chemistry, physics and mathematics.

·         happy to spend time using a computer and surfing the Internet.

·         a good communicator to explain your fascinating discoveries to your peers, friends and the public.

·         patient and have good powers of observation.


Did you know that...?

·         The sun is one of a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is estimated that the number of stars in the universe is greater than the number of grains of sand in the world. On the clearest night we can see about 3,000 stars, equivalent to a handful of sand.

·         Black Holes are so incredibly dense and generate such intense gravity that even light can't escape.

·         When you look at distant stars, the light takes so long to reach us that we are really seeing objects as they appeared thousands or millions of years ago. So, when star-gazing, we are actually looking back in time.

·         Although Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, it is by no means the hottest planet. The night side of the planet can get as cold as minus 173 degrees centigrade. Why? Because Mercury has a really thin atmosphere. There is nothing to trap heat near the surface.

·         On Jupiter storms can rage for years or even centuries. The Great Red Spot, a monster of a storm that is twice the diameter of Earth, has been raging for more than 300 years.


Astronomy quiz

1.    How many planets are there in our solar system?   a) 15   b) 9   c) 8


2.    Which planet has the hottest surface? a) Venus   b) Mercury   c) Mars


3.    How many planets have moons? a) 8   b) 6   c) 7


4.    How old is our solar system?

a) 800 million years   b) 2 billion years   c) 5 billion years


5.    Where do comets originate from?

a) Asteroid belt   b) Oort cloud   c) Interstellar medium


6.    Which planet contains Olympus Mons, the largest volcano of the solar system?

a) Mercury   b) Venus   c) Mars


Answers: 1) c   2) a   3) b   4) c   5) b   6) c 


By Nick Kennedy

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