It’s Not All Rocket Science

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  Last updated June 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm

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Do you have what it takes to be the best in the galaxy? Are you smart and imaginative and like a challenge? Then, Cris Burne suggests, you should take a look at the universe. 


Working ‘in’ space doesn’t mean you have to be locked into astronomy, although that’s certainly a hot option. You can study pretty much any type of science or engineering and find you’re way into a working life with a connection to space – optics, chemistry, atomic physics, computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, and fluid dynamics are just a few.


What’s out there?


From the Big Bang to the search for extra-terrestrials, there’s 13.7 billion years of space and a truck-load of stars to fire your imagination. And did I mention mystery? Take dark energy, for example. All that talk about everything being made from atoms isn’t exactly true. Something like 73% of the universe is made from dark energy, and despite the brightest minds working on this, we still  have no real clue what dark energy actually is.


And then there’s dark matter. That’s around 23% of the universe. And yes, you guessed it: no real clue what that’s about either. See: goo.gl/FKt8Tk


Not interested in weird stuff you can’t see? Then what about life? Searching for creatures – ok, let’s call them aliens – beyond Earth is a serious professional pursuit. See: seti.org/node/647


And then of course, there’s the chance to become an astronaut. Because seriously: someone gets to be an astronaut. Why not you?


ET Phone Australia


If you’re even a tiny bit interested in the universe, check out the Square Kilometre Array (SKA): it’s a super-complicated, incredibly ambitious radio telescope. It’ll be built in Australia and South Africa and it’s only just getting started. See: ska.gov.au/About/Pages/ default.aspx


“When fully operational, SKA will need the most powerful supercomputer of its time to process the data that will flow from the telescope,” says CSIRO’s Dr Jill Rathborne. “It will run on renewable energy, and be located in the remote Western Australian outback. Building, maintaining, and supporting a multi-billion-dollar telescope like this needs a huge network of experts across Australia – from the astronomers who will use the telescope…to the engineers who will build and look after it, the possibilities to get involved in SKA in the future are immense.”


Jill works with CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division, and says studying astronomy has opened all sorts of doors in her life. She didn’t always have a clear long-term career plan, but during her PhD spent three weeks working in the South Pole at one of Australia’s Antarctic bases. Since then she’s spent nine months living and working at a telescope on a high mountain in the Chilean Andes and has worked at Boston and Harvard Universities. “And now I work for CSIRO, Australia’s premier science organisation,” Jill says proudly.


Why do we need a bigger telescope?


“The SKA in its early phase will be more than 100 times better at measuring the faint signatures from the distant universe compared to the radio telescopes we’re using today,” Jill explains. “It’s being built to answer some of the most fundamental questions about the universe; from understanding the formation of the first galaxies, to probing the conditions in the universe moments after it began, to testing Einstein’s theories of gravity, to searching for planets and extra-terrestrial intelligence.”


Countdown to SKA


CSIRO’s Mary D’Souza is the senior mechanical engineer at ASKAP – the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. ASKAP is like SKA’s little sister; its role is to demonstrate new technologies that will be used when SKA goes live.


“ASKAP enables astronomers to make new discoveries by improving sensitivity, increasing bandwidth…and increasing the field of view,” Mary says.


With all these new-and improved features to play with, ASKAP astronomers hope to reveal more about the evolution of the universe, how galaxies are formed, and the role of magnetic fields in galaxies (including our own).


How did Mary get to work on ASKAP? “I studied mechanical and space engineering and have gone on to work in heavy industry, minerals exploration, mining and now observatory engineering operations,” she says.


Image credit: Alex Cherney / terrastro.com


Mission to Mars


Fancy making history? Be part of the next-generation of space scientists working to land someone (maybe you?) on planet Mars.


Australian geologist Dr Abby Allwood is a principal scientist for NASA’s 2020 rover mission to Mars. Abby’s a field geologist who caught NASA’s eye with technology she developed for her work on WA’s 3.43 billion-year-old stromatolites: microbial evidence of some of the oldest life on Earth.


Passionate about planetary science since she was a kid, Abby was able to link her search for ancient life on Earth to the search for life on Mars. “This was one of those rare life moments when you see a pathway to something that is your heart’s desire, so I jumped at it,” she told ABC News online.


Abby’s team is in charge of designing, building and operating a new gadget, called PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry). PIXL’s job is to search tiny Martian rocks for even tinier signs of microbial life; it’ll be one of just seven instruments the 2020 Rover will carry.


Who Really Works In Space Science?


Think about what you love doing… chances are, there’s a spacey job doing it. Design a better spacesuit. Build a superior satellite. Develop a revolutionary space rover. Invent new medicines. Test-fly the latest gadgets. Teach a robot new tricks. Work out how to process terabytes of data on a super-strict deadline. Whatever launches your rocket could get you there.


Houston, We’ve Solved a Problem


All this stargazing is hugely important to life on Earth. Technologies originally developed to drive space exploration and research are now vital to ordinary people. Think Wi-Fi and CAT scans through to advanced solar cells and GPS (not to mention invisible braces, digital selfies and scratch-resistant sunnies).


So who’s hiring?


If you’re working like crazy to follow your dream, you want to make sure there’s a job at the end of the rainbow. Get an idea of how often space science jobs come up by checking out websites like nasajobs.nasa.gov and space-careers.com.


And remember: the job you want may not even be invented yet.


I’m an Australian… Get me out of here!


Australia doesn’t train its own astronauts, but there are space agencies in Brazil, Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States. Most countries require you to be a citizen, and dual-citizenship is also an option. NASA hires more astronauts than any other space agency. Want to be one? You’ll need:



  • a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics

  • at least three years of experience, either studying, working or teaching

  • to fit in the space suit: only those between 148 and 193 cm tall need apply.


G’Day Earth


Australian astronaut Dr Andy Thomas grew up in the 60s: “For a young kid growing up in Australia at that time, the prospects of becoming an astronaut were remote, to say the least. But I’ve always believed that the pathway to many interesting experiences can be opened if you have the right kind of education.”


Andy started out with a First Class Honours degree in Mechanical Engineering, then did a PhD in aerodynamics engineering. These “fairly unique skills” scored him a job in the United States, working for the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company on solutions for aircraft drag and propulsion systems. Later Andy moved to micro-gravity research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and from there, to NASA’s astronaut training program.


“I looked very closely at the people that were being selected to become astronauts. I looked at the kind of credentials they had, because I knew that I had to compete on that arena,” he says. He went into space four times, spent more than 160 days in orbit and did a 6.5-hour spacewalk.


Cris Burne studied biotechnology at uni and now travels the world as a science writer. Her favourite jobs so far have been as a science circus performer, garbage analyst, wasabit tester and atom-smashing reporter, but she has a particular passion for cheese. cristyburne.com


Originally published in Ultimate Science Guide 2016. Read the new Ultimate Careers magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.


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About the Author

Kelly Wong
Online producer at Australia's Science Channel. I have a background in immunology, food blogging, volunteering, and social media. I'm passionate about creating communities on social media and getting them excited about science. I enjoy good food and I am on an eternal mission to find the best ice cream. Find me on Twitter @kellyyyllek

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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