Astrochemistry

Overview

“Exotic workplace locales, amazing discoveries, and fame (but probably not fortune) await those who persevere on the path leading to a career as a professional astronomer,” says Duncan Forbes, an astronomy professor at Swinburne University in Australia.

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Astrochemistry spans the disciplines of chemistry, planetary science, chemical biology, physics, astronomy, and computational science. Astrochemists perform experimental and computational laboratory studies (including quantum chemical calculations) to generate data for interpreting or explaining astronomical observations, to provide input data for models, and to test theories about the formation and evolution of large and small molecules in various astrophysical environments.

They also use Earth-based telescopes, satellites, and space vehicles to gather spectroscopic data. They create and apply mathematical models, theories based on chemical dynamics, kinetics, quantum mechanics, and other physical principles. They use computer visualizations to help them explain their observations in terms of known physical and chemical principles and to study the origins of extraterrestrial bodies and the chemical processes that have shaped their present forms.

At the 2013 ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia, the ACS Physical Chemistry Division established a new Astrochemistry Subdivision for chemists who study out-of-this-world atoms and molecules. The American Astronomical Society also recently established a Laboratory Astrophysics Division to promote “fundamental theoretical and experimental research into the underlying processes that drive the Cosmos.”

Astrochemists examine chemical compositions and processes for stars, planets, comets, and interstellar media. They look at how atoms, molecules, ions, and free radicals interact outside of Earth's atmosphere, they contribute to our understanding of geological processes on other planets, and they explore conditions under which life might form by examining molecules on other planets and in outer space.

Carl Sagan, for example, became known for his research on the potential existence of extraterrestrial life, including his laboratory experiments that used radiation to form amino acids from basic chemicals. Sagan published a paper called “Titan: a laboratory for prebiological organic chemistry” in Accounts of Chemical Research, an ACS journal, in 1992. A popular figure today is Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator who hosted the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to Carl Sagan's 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which covers a wide range of scientific subjects, including the origin of life and our connection with the universe.

 

Education

Astrochemists require a solid background in chemistry or a related scientific field and an understanding of astronomical data collection and analysis methods. Most positions are research-oriented and require a Ph.D. and additional experience in a field of specialization such as geosciences, physics, mathematics, or chemical biology. This cross-disciplinary background is especially helpful when collaborating with colleagues in other areas of expertise.

Astrochemists must be able to interpret data collected and transmitted over large distances and to evaluate the results of a calculation or simulation to determine whether the results accurately represent physical reality. They must be able to perform analyses that distinguish genuine physical phenomena from artifacts or “noise.”

A limited number of positions are available to chemists with bachelor's or master's degrees, as support staff for astrochemical researchers. They may maintain instruments and telescopes, laboratory equipment, or computational resources. 

 

Licensing

Licenses are not generally required for astrochemistry.

Astrochemists working at government agencies or national laboratories may be required to undergo background checks, based on the nature of the work and the security requirements of the laboratory.

 

Workspace

astrochemist workers

In the past, working in astronomy-related fields required long nights spent on remote mountaintop telescope facilities. Today, much astronomical work, including astrochemistry, is done remotely. Astronomers use internet connections to do data collection runs and manipulate telescopes from anywhere in the world. A small on-site staff keeps the telescopes and other instruments in good operating condition and assists remote users in setting up and collecting data.

Data analysis takes up much more time than data collection, and this can be performed remotely as well. Many researchers in astronomy-related fields spend most of their time in an office environment, and they work normal daytime hours or flexible schedules. They may travel to observatories or specialized laboratory facilities a few times a year.

Most U.S. astrochemists work in academia, at research institutes, or for government agencies, including NASA (the largest employer), or joint government–academic ventures such as the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, JILA (the University of Colorado at Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology), or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA and the California Institute of Technology).

Because this is such a small field, and because many projects require international collaborations, persons wishing to pursue astrochemistry as a career should be willing to consider traveling or living abroad.

 

Technical Skills

Analytical Communication Background Knowledge Vision
  • Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving basic and applied research problems
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills to design and validate laboratory and computational models and analyze and interpret data results
  • Skills in designing experiments and applying computer software to solve new categories of problems
  • Written and oral communication skills to explain findings and share results with scientists and nonscientists
  • Understanding of astronomical concepts, including the behavior of light over long distances and the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter
  • Understanding of theoretical principles, including kinetics, thermodynamics, and quantum chemistry
  • Familiarity with computer modeling and statistical analysis methods
  • Ability to extract information from large data sets and interpret spectroscopic data
  • Ability to interpret visual representations of models and datasets

   

Career Path

Astrochemistry is a research-oriented field; a Ph.D. is a universal requirement for entry (although some support staff positions may be available to those with bachelor's or master's degrees). Students or recent graduates may do one or more internships or postdoctoral fellowships in preparation for obtaining a full-time career position.

Professional-level astrochemists may pursue a teaching and/or research career in academia, or they may work for a government agency or national laboratory. They may also support and train facility users or students, or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data.

After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, astrochemists generally gain increasing independence and larger budgets for their work. They may supervise research teams consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, or technical staff members. Some experienced astrochemists move into program management or administration, where they spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules and obtaining funding, in addition to overseeing researchers and research programs.

Professional Organizations

 

Future Employment Trends

Astrochemistry is a new interdisciplinary vocation, and the field is growing; however, demand is still small compared with other occupations. Several sources note that, although there seem to be enough astronomy postdoctoral positions to go around, finding a permanent job is difficult. Because most positions rely on some form of government funding, budget cuts and freezes may affect the number and types of positions available.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) reports that the faculty turnover rate in university astronomy departments is about half that in the corresponding physics departments. The AAS also reports that this field has a small turnover rate, and thus a small number of open positions each year. “In recent years, there have been about 150 job openings for astronomers in North America, while the number of Ph.D.s conferred annually in recent years has averaged about 125. It is common for astronomers to spend from three to six years in postdoctoral positions before finding a steady position in a university department, national facility, or government lab,” their website states. The AAS website's job postings page listed six postdoctoral or research fellow positions and two faculty positions between January and December 2014. Only one of these positions was in the United states.

“In such a small and popular field, only those with a quality education, ability, and passion for the subject are likely to find a permanent position. Astronomy training, however, emphasizes a remarkably broad set of problem-solving skills. With careful selection of graduate school courses and experiences, one may prepare for an interesting and productive career in a related field, such as industrial research, education, and public information,” the AAS website concludes.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that growth in federal government spending for physics and astronomy research is expected to be more or less flat, but it should continue to drive the need for physicists and astronomers, especially at colleges, universities, and national laboratories. They report that Federal spending is the primary source of physics- and astronomy-related research funds, especially for basic research.

   

Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

An astrochemist must understand the underlying principles of data collection methods and simulations to set up conditions and parameters and to ensure that the results are meaningful and properly interpreted. This requires patience, logical thinking, precision, and attention to detail.

Astrochemists collaborate with physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, and mission specialists, among others, and they must have some degree of expertise across several disciplines. They are also likely to work with scientists from other nations and cultures. They must understand the problems that their colleagues are trying to solve and advise them on the types of experiments they perform.

Like chemists in other areas, astrochemists must present their research in written or oral form to funding agencies, at scientific conferences, to the public, or to government agencies. They must be able to communicate complex concepts in terms that their audiences can accurately understand.

Astrochemists must review and evaluate their own research and the research of others. They must have the critical thinking skills to determine whether the research methodology is sound, the results have been interpreted properly, and the conclusions are supported by solid evidence.

Because astrochemistry is a research-oriented field, astrochemists must maintain a keen curiosity and a drive to discover new knowledge. They must stay current on new technologies and scientific findings that can help them further their research, and they must use creative thinking to solve complex problems in innovative ways.


Other Resources

Opportunities

Astrochemists are employed by universities, research institutes, and government agencies.

The worldwide community of professional astronomers (all specialties) has only about 11,500 members, of which ~2500 are located in the United States.

Education

Research astrochemists require a Ph.D. with concentrations in both chemistry and astronomy.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not list astrochemistry as a separate field, it cites a “doctoral or professional degree” as “entry-level education” for physicists and astronomers.

Salaries

  • Median annual wage for physicists: $110,110 (2013)
  • Median annual wage for astronomers: $110,450 (2013)