Astronomy, study of the universe and the celestial bodies, gas, and dust within it. Astronomy includes observations and theories about the solar system, the stars, the galaxies, and the general structure of space. Astronomy also includes cosmology, the study of the universe and its past and future. People who study astronomy are called astronomers, and they use a wide variety of methods to perform their research. These methods usually involve ideas of physics, so most astronomers are also astrophysicists, and the terms astronomer and astrophysicist are basically identical. Some areas of astronomy also use techniques of chemistry, geology, and biology.
Professional astronomers usually have access to powerful telescopes, detectors, and computers. Most work in astronomy includes three parts, or phases. Astronomers first observe astronomical objects by guiding telescopes and instruments to collect the appropriate information. Astronomers then analyze the images and data. After the analysis, they compare their results with existing theories to determine whether their observations match with what theories predict, or whether the theories can be improved. Some astronomers work solely on observation and analysis, and some work solely on developing new theories.
Astronomy is such a broad topic that astronomers specialize in one or more parts of the field. For example, the study of the solar system is a different area of specialization than the study of stars. Astronomers who study our galaxy, the Milky Way, often use techniques different from those used by astronomers who study distant galaxies. Many planetary astronomers, such as scientists who study Mars, may have geology backgrounds and not consider themselves astronomers at all. Solar astronomers use different telescopes than nighttime astronomers use, because the Sun is so bright. Theoretical astronomers may never use telescopes at all. Instead, these astronomers use existing data or sometimes only previous theoretical results to develop and test theories. An increasing field of astronomy is computational astronomy, in which astronomers use computers to simulate astronomical events. Examples of events for which simulations are useful include the formation of the earliest galaxies of the universe or the explosion of a star to make a supernova.
Astronomers learn about astronomical objects by observing the energy they emit. These objects emit energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation travels throughout the universe in the form of waves and can range from gamma rays, which have extremely short wavelengths, to visible light, to radio waves, which are very long. The entire range of these different wavelengths makes up the electromagnetic spectrum.
Astronomers gather different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation depending on the objects that are being studied. The techniques of astronomy are often very different for studying different wavelengths. Conventional telescopes work only for visible light and the parts of the spectrum near visible light, such as the shortest infrared wavelengths and the longest ultraviolet wavelengths. Earth’s atmosphere complicates studies by absorbing many wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma-ray astronomy, X-ray astronomy, infrared astronomy, ultraviolet astronomy, radio astronomy, visible-light astronomy, cosmic-ray astronomy, gravitational-wave astronomy, and neutrino astronomy all use different instruments and techniques.
See also Planetary Science