Astrophysics: Useful Information on Study, Career, and Research

Get to know Astrophysics, the branch of Physics that studies the Heavens. This article will be a basic introduction to the field and how it works.

You may have been fascinated by Space and the Universe. In order to understand Outer Space and the Universe, we have to utilize scientific methods. That’s what Astrophysics means. If you want a proper definition, then there is this: ‘It is the systematic study of the astronomical objects and phenomena using Physics’.

Because however far away those galaxies and stars may be from us, the Physics which works for us also works for them. Let us look at some of the most asked questions about Astrophysics by beginners and answers to them.

Are Astrophysics and Astronomy the same? What are Cosmology and Planetary Science?

Astrophysics is the application of Physics to the study of astronomical objects and phenomena, whereas Astronomy mainly deals with observations of astronomical objects. Astronomy does use Physics and physical techniques in order to obtain all the necessary information from the required astronomical body.

However, the difference between Astrophysics and Astronomy is blurring and Astronomers do research the physical aspect of the systems. Planetary Science is a field of study that deals with the planets in our solar system and other exoplanets. Cosmology is a field of study that deals with the galaxies and large-scale structure and evolution of the Universe.

What are the major branches of Astrophysics?

Astrophysics is easily divided into only two major branches, namely, Observational and Theoretical Astrophysics. Observational Astrophysics deals with observing astronomical objects with telescopes and other scientific instruments and collecting useful data for research. Theoretical Astrophysics involves using Physics to interpret observational data and construct physical models in order to predict future behavior.

What branches of Physics do Astrophysicists use?

Astrophysicists use a lot of Physics from various Physics disciplines such as General Relativity, Nuclear and Particle Physics, Statistical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism, Classical Mechanics, and even Chemistry, Computer Science, various engineering branches for technical tools, and various Statistical Techniques.

What is the goal of Astrophysics?

Every one of us can have a unique view of what the ultimate goal of doing Astrophysics should be. According to NASA’s website, the goals of astrophysics are “to discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars”. What’s your goal in Astrophysics? Comment below.

What is Observational Astrophysics? What techniques does it use?

If you love observing the Universe through telescopes and detectors, this one is for you. Most of the astrophysical observations are made with electromagnetic radiation, ranging from Radio Waves to Gamma Rays. Some other physical phenomena can also be used to make astrophysical observations such as Gravitational Waves, Neutrinos, or Cosmic Rays.

Highly sensitive radio antennas known as Radio telescopes are used to detect electromagnetic waves in the range of millimeters to tens of meters. Infrared telescopes and detectors are used to receive infrared radiation from astronomical objects in the wavelength range from 750 nanometers to 1 millimeter.

Optical telescopes such as the Refracting, Reflecting, or Catadioptric telescopes are used to observe astronomical bodies in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is from 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers. Ultraviolet telescopes are utilized to observe the UV spectra at a wavelength range from 10 to 320 nanometers approximately.

Since most of the ultraviolet rays coming from space are absorbed by the atmosphere, ultraviolet measurements have to be made in the upper atmosphere or in space. X-ray telescopes and detectors are used to detect X-Ray from astronomical objects in the range of 10 picometers to 10 nanometers.

X-rays are absorbed by the atmosphere, hence X-Ray observations are to be made in space or the upper atmosphere. Gamma Rays from the astronomical bodies can be detected by using gamma-ray detectors for wavelengths less than 10 picometers. So basically, Observational Astrophysics involves every type of radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Can we do Observational Astrophysics without Electromagnetic Radiation?

Short Answer – Yes! Long Answer – Yes but very difficult to do using the present technology. Gravitational waves are disturbances in the curvature of spacetime generated by accelerated masses that propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. However, these waves cannot be detected easily.

The observatories need to have extremely sensitive high-tech equipment in order to detect these waves, otherwise, the noise in the signal would be too disturbing. Gravitational-wave astronomy has two major advantages; it is possible to obtain gravitational waves for uncharged astronomical bodies and gravitational waves can pass through any object between the source and observatory without getting scattered significantly.

Gravitational waves have the potential to obtain insights into the Universe which we would never have otherwise with conventional astronomical observation techniques. Few neutrino observatories have also been built to study the Sun. Our Sun, being the closest star to us offers us a unique opportunity to study the structure and evolution of stars very deeply.

What is Theoretical Astrophysics?

If you love working out mathematical formulas and doing computer simulations in order to find out “how stuff works” in the Universe, then this is the one for you. Theoretical astrophysics is the study of astronomical objects and phenomena using analytical models and numerical simulations.

Theorists and astrophysicists predict the behavior of astronomical objects and phenomena by making analytical models using the laws of physics. They hope their model would fit the observational data obtained. When the data arrives from the observations, astrophysicists try to match the observations by making some corrections to their model and see if the data matches.

If the observational data is completely mismatched with the model, they try to create an alternative model for describing the behavior of the system or look for an existing model other astrophysicists have made.

What do Theoretical Astrophysicists do?

Theoretical astrophysicists study most of the objects and phenomena in the Universe which can be mathematically modeled. They study the formation, evolution, and behavior of stars, galaxies, and other large-scale structures in the Universe.

They study the origin of the Universe and test the predictions of the General Theory of Relativity on a large scale. General Theory of Relativity is very much needed in the study of Astrophysics as the distances and masses involved in the Astrophysical setting require to use of General Relativity to provide accurate predictions.

Until now, the General Theory of Relativity has been fairly successful in explaining most of the observed astrophysical phenomena. Astrophysicists use Astroparticle physics to study the fundamental particles in the Universe. They also try to apply String theory to describe the Universe.

What do Theoretical astrophysicists study?

Theoretical astrophysicists study various astrophysical objects, phenomena, and behavior. The major topics of study include the Big Bang Cosmology, Dark Energy, Dark Matter, Large scale structure formation and evolution, and Evolution of Stars.

How to study Astrophysics?

To be an astrophysicist isn’t necessarily hard or tough, but you need to be strong in physics and mathematics. When you are young you can start your journey in astrophysics by learning more about the Universe through books, the internet, and attending astronomy-related events.

Participating in astronomy-related events and hearing astrophysicists speak is a great way to be motivated and to keep in touch. There is high competition for enrollment into Astrophysics programs, hence having a strong background in physics and maths is highly recommended for high-school students.

Getting high marks in exams is recommended. There are very less institutions that offer bachelor’s degrees in Astrophysics. You can take your bachelor’s degree in Physics in college. You have to also concentrate on maths and computer science, as a career in Astrophysics involves a lot of programming and coding.

Astrophysics can sometimes involve chemistry too. You can go to Internships and Summer Research Programs in institutions and observatories where you can get experience working on Astrophysics Projects. You can also go to the Astrophysics field after your Btech i.e, having an engineering degree can get you into some Astrophysics graduate programs.

After graduation, you can complete your Ph.D. in astrophysics and then find a post-doctoral position. Most Astrophysicists, Physicists, and Astronomers have a doctoral degree in Astrophysics. Getting a Ph.D. takes a long time and you will have to do original research and publish papers in journals and conferences.

What are the Career Opportunities in Astrophysics?

Most of us would love to have a Career in Astrophysics. You can go to work and study the evolution of the Universe or about Black Holes. Pretty fascinating, isn’t it? Let’s look into the Career scope for Astrophysics. Astrophysics can get you mainly into the academic field or research institutions or space organizations and observatories.

Engineering graduates can also find jobs in the Astrophysical field. There will be opportunities for engineers for various technical positions in observatories and Astrophysics research institutions. There is a demand for Astrophysics graduates for jobs in observatories.

There are also lucrative career opportunities for future Astrophysics graduates in other fields such as data science, teaching, and research, or a scientific journalist. There are a number of major Astrophysical projects going on. Astrophysics graduates can contribute to society in a number of ways.

What is your favorite aspect of Astrophysics? Comment below.

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