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Is the Race to Conquer Space Creating Work for Space Researchers?

On a clear, dark night, you look up to see what appear to be millions of stars. But what you can see is only a small part of the universe. There are new planets to discover, new places to explore and lots of work to be done before anyone can get there. Even before we can put the first human on Mars, researchers need to gather and analyze more information about our solar system.

You could be one of the few who travel through space to visit distant planets. Or you could study the planets from your computer and control a robot to do the exploration for you. You could write press releases to explain the latest discoveries to the world, or you could negotiate contracts with companies who supply the tools for space research.

There are numerous opportunities for space researchers, and the future promises even more exciting prospects for careers in space research. If you aren't interested in visiting space as an astronaut, don't worry. Most careers in space research are based right here on Earth.

Tracy Drain holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a systems engineer currently working on the project systems engineering team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as part of the Kepler Mission. She sees lots of opportunities in her field.

"I think that friendly competition with other nations tends to increase public awareness of and excitement about space exploration," she says. "And that seems to increase the funds that both government and private industry make available for such activities."

Chris Damaren is vice dean of the faculty of applied science and engineering at a university. He is cautiously optimistic about the future.

"It is too early to tell," he says, "but it appears that space-faring nations are not substantially cutting their budgets for space activities. Since much of the work is financed by countries rather than the private sector, it should be less affected than other aspects of the economy."

That's good news for those wanting to find out more about the universe. Drain is excited about the future of her projects.

"Once launched and fully checked out, Kepler will begin monitoring over 100,000 stars to look for the tell-tale, periodic dimming of light that is an indicator that a planet is passing between the star and our instrument," she says.

"Keep in mind that there is a wide variety of people needed to make a space mission successful," adds Drain.

"There are a lot of areas for people who are strictly 'scientists' or 'engineers' [working in areas] such as...chemistry and material science for developing and testing the cutting-edge materials used for space applications, mechanical and electrical engineering for designing and testing spacecraft components and instruments, geology and planetology for developing the scientific goals for our missions and analyzing the data returned by the spacecraft."

There are also many other jobs in this field that aren't directly related to scientific research. These include managing contracts made with other companies, obtaining parts and managing budgets. Graphic artists are needed to generate realistic spacecraft models and images that engineers use in problem solving. Media relations experts relay information to the public.

Deborah Bass is deputy project scientist for the Phoenix Mars Mission. She has been involved in a variety of projects at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She says there is a lot of diversity in jobs even on the research end.

"I have done a number of different jobs at JPL. We manage unmanned, robotic space missions at JPL. We also build much [of the] hardware that is flown into space and operate those spacecraft as they are being flown in space missions.

"That is one of the fun things working here. I get to try out a bunch of different types of things, and I am constantly learning new and exciting ways to work. I have worked as a science systems engineer to design the kind of work scientists will do for missions that land on the surface of Mars. I have done this job for the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers, and also the Phoenix Mars Lander. "

Bass has conducted research on data that has come back from spacecraft orbiting Mars. She has tried to better understand the water cycle on Mars. "These days, I am looking far ahead at what kinds of missions NASA might send to Mars 10 to 20 years from now," she says. "That is a very different job than what I've done in the past."

Kai Multhaup is also looking ahead to explore new planets. He is the local project manager for the MERTIS instrument at the Institut für Planetologie in Munster, Germany.

"MERTIS is an infrared spectrometer that will travel to Mercury aboard the European BepiColombo in 2014 and examine its surface from above," he says. "The catch is that we do not know exactly how to interpret the spectral data that MERTIS will beam back to Earth."

Multhaup says analyzing that data is a good example of ground-based research for scientists who are interested in space, but don't necessarily want to visit it.

The future looks good for all kinds of space researchers, he says. "These are exciting times. NASA is gearing up for its return to the moon, the International Space Station is nearing completion and a number of robotic explorers are cruising throughout the solar system. New interplanetary missions to Mercury and the moons of the gas giants are being planned.

"To implement current and future missions, the world's space agencies and research institutes need engineers, scientists and astronauts."

How Do I Become a Space Scientist?

Typically, research scientists are people with a great curiosity about the unknown. They have good reading and writing skills. Being able to effectively communicate with other people all over the world is very important since a lot of the research is shared throughout the global scientific community. It is not too early to think about what courses to take to prepare for a career in space research.

"Many careers in space research involve science and engineering," says Damaren. "Middle school students should consider courses in mathematics and science, including physics, chemistry and biology."

"There is a need for people with all levels of university education," Damaren explains. "However, students can increase their chances of a career in space research by earning advanced degrees in science and engineering, such as a master's or a PhD."

There are other things you can do to increase your chances of success.

"Keep an eye out for things like summer internships and co-op programs," advises Drain. "Spending some time working in the area you are interested in often helps a lot in determining whether you love it or would rather try something different.

"Some summer internship programs take students who are still in high school. Be sure to ask your counselors for information or visit a website for any companies -- including NASA -- that you may be interested in.... It never hurts to plan ahead and know what to aim for!"

Opportunities Will Explode

It appears that all systems are set to go for space exploration. The need for space researchers will explode as global space agencies race to be the first to put a human being on a distant planet, or to discover new life forms on yet-to-be-discovered worlds. And it will take people from many backgrounds to work together to achieve these out-of-this-world goals.


Learn about current happenings across the agency

Universities Space Research Association
Learn about the USRA, which works to further space science and technology and promotes education in these areas

International Space University
Read about this university, which trains and educates students in all space-related disciplines

American Association of Variable Star Observers
Learn more about this organization for amateur and professional astronomers

National Geographic Science and Space
Take a virtual tour

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