Galileo Galilei
A portrait of Galileo Galilei, the father of modern astronomy
Credit: Justus Sustermans

An astronomer is a scientist who studies objects in space, such as planets, stars and galaxies.

Although mankind has been studying the heavens for many thousands of years, it was the first use of an astronomical telescope, by Galileo in 1609, that began the modern era of astronomy. The 400 years since have seen huge improvements to both our understanding and technology.

These days, astronomers use telescopes all over the world, well away from street lights, where the skies are dark and the weather is good. Astronomers from the UK regularly fly out to to use telescopes in faraway places like Hawaii, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the Canary Islands.

Professional astronomers are highly educated individuals who usually have a PhD in astronomy, physics or maths. In other words, they will have studied to be a scientist at University for at least six years. Whilst the pay is slightly less than you might expect in the commercial world, astronomers are not driven by the pursuit of wealth, but by the pursuit of knowledge and the opportunity of using some of the best telescopes and instrumentation in the world.

There are just a few hundred professional astronomers in the UK, and most of these are employed by University research departments. That said, the world of astronomy is very international, so whichever department you visit in the world, you are likely to find a wide range of nationalities. Astronomers spend much of their time conducting research on some aspect of astronomy, however, they also have other duties such as teaching, making instruments, or working in an observatory.

If you want to know more about the lives of modern day astronomers, told in their own words, then feel free to investigate our list of stories.