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Astronomy is the comprehensive study of what lies beyond the Earth. Modern astronomy (I relied on classifications from here and here) is divided into a large sections (astrophysics, astrogeology, astrobiology, astrometry). In addition to theoretical and computational topics, astronomical instruments are also important for studying celestial bodies. In fact, many branches of astronomy are closely related to each other, so such classifications are somewhat arbitrary. But if the close connection between the usual sections is very noticeable, then the connection of these same sections with the engineering of astronomical instruments no longer seems so. What we're talking about here:

  1. on the one hand, any astronomical instrument (for example, optical telescope, infrared and gamma detectors, cosmic ray detectors, space observatory, etc.) interacts with the space environment and must perform its work correctly, and therefore the development engineers of these devices must also understand the physical processes underlying the corresponding phenomena.

  2. on the other hand, all these aspects are presented in the form of a series of technical requirements (power supply, accuracy, throughput, permissible modes, autonomy, etc.). This is where the interaction between astronomers and engineers ends; engineers do not touch physical processes and develop instruments to meet technical requirements.

This is where my question begins: are there any areas of astronomy that require knowledge of both engineering (design, prototyping, modeling and testing) and astrophysics/cosmology (large-scale structure modeling, gravitational waves, etc.))?

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    $\begingroup$ Point 1 implies space-based instruments, but everything else is true for ground-based as well. Astronomy Instrumentation research groups in universities (and their spinouts) do have engineers as well as those with more of an astronomy background - we have such a group here in Cardiff, as well as people working on the technology for gravitational wave detection (though everyone I can think of in the latter group comes from an astronomy/cosmology/physics background). $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 6, 2023 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisH that's really curious! And were these initially tech-savvy astronomers, or did people gain skills/knowledge as part of some advanced training courses, or self-study while working on gravitational wave detectors? $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 7, 2023 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ They've been doing it longer than I've been in Cardiff, but the academics, as far as I can tell, come from an astronomy or gravitational waves background, depending on which field they're working on now. I know some of the other staff (postdocs, engineers) in the astronomy instrumentation group have more of a background in instrumentation physics and I can't rule out an engineering background. (I don't share a building with them any more, being semiconductor physics rather than astro) $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 7, 2023 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ ... But AFAICT they all learnt on the job. That's reasonable for us postdocs working on novel experiments and instrumentation. Some self-study, more learning by doing (including by designing), plus knowledge sharing within the group $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Dec 7, 2023 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisH therefore, if an astrophysicist can acquire knowledge of engineering, then the opposite situation is possible $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 12, 2023 at 5:32

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Yes, there is an intersection between astronomy and engineering. In my experience, it will mostly be astronomers who have a flair for technology and instrumentation who at some point, either from the beginning of their career or at a later point, transition into being more "engineer-like", but I'm sure the opposite exist as well.

I have two colleagues who are educated as astronomers, but who work solely on developing (a few specific) instruments. In their every-day work they need knowledge on optics, detectors, solid-state physics, and such. But both are very knowledgeable in astronomy which is needed to understand how to design the instruments. They then have a close relation with people on our institute's workshop, who know about manufacturing but less about astronomy.

Another colleague started out as an (observational) cosmologist and did some important work on this in the 90's, but then ended up as the "project scientist" on one of JWST's four instruments. A project scientist, in this context, is the "link" between the astronomers, who know what they want to observe (which wavelength range, what spectral resolution is needed, signal-to-noise ratio, etc.), and the engineers, who know how to do this in practice (what is feasible, how does some material react to temperature changes, etc.).

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    $\begingroup$ @dtn Well, I was Project Scientist for HETE-2, and I understood the machinery better than anybody else did. An engineer and I made the first sketch of the spacecraft on my blackboard in 1988, and I was still Project Scientist and covering a regular operations shift when the mission ended in 2006. I worked on spacecraft, instrument, ground systems and data analysis: mechanics, optics, thermal, electronic, communications, software, control, ... What a ride that was! $\endgroup$
    – John Doty
    Dec 5, 2023 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn I would have written "I doubt the Project Scientist understands all the details of the instrument", but John Doty above proved me wrong :) $\endgroup$
    – pela
    Dec 6, 2023 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't understand every detail, but I understood more of the details than anybody else, and that understanding spanned the whole range of the project from the theory of gamma ray bursts to details of spacecraft and instrumentation. A lot of that was simply that I spent more of my time on the project than anybody else. $\endgroup$
    – John Doty
    Dec 6, 2023 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn I just had a chat with my colleague about his role as a project scientist (on NIRSpec). He said that one of his forces, as an astronomer, was to do "sanity checks" on engineer calculations, such as "but this isn't consistent with the Stefan–Boltzmann law / lens equation / etc." Another role of his was to disappoint utopian astronomers who wanted the instrument to do this and that. And to attend an endless number of meetings which, apparently, engineers are very fond of. $\endgroup$
    – pela
    Dec 8, 2023 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @pela well, similar thoughts were made by a former colleague of mine when I asked him the question this weekend “what do you think, what if...”? :) $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 12, 2023 at 5:42
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Yes, this intersection exists, in the instrumentation, and somewhat in mission design.

When it gets to designing instruments, it needs knowledge of both worlds: what does science want, how and in what form is it most useful - and from engineering what are the technical options, how do they interact and what are the engineering challenges and requirements beyond the immediately novelty of the instrument in the context of the satellite or observatory or set of instrumentation suite.

Some people in my physics institute do build instruments for spacecraft or for the ISS. Most of our students and staff have thus a physics background, but there are always some who do have an engineering background: the often most versatile people in this area between disciplines are those who did e.g. a Bachelor and/or master in aerospace and spacecraft engineering, and then continue with a PhD in (astro)physics - and surely there are people who did it vice versa in neighbouring engineering institutes.

This insight into both areas is crucial. These people can gather the input from science collegues, and translate into the language of the engineers and workshop collegues - and vice versa. These combination of skills are very well suited for positions like the project scientist or similar for single instruments, subsystems or also for the whole spacecraft. It enables to coordinate the work, and testing and prototyping of new instruments, reconciling technical possibilities with scientific desires and requirements - and giving them the best overview when it comes to making (or at least providing the recommendation for) the hard decisions where cost and time have to be weighed against slightly increasing the scientific output and usefulness into more accuracy or sensitivity or whatever advances science (more). During and after mission your skills will also come in handy when it comes into the details of understanding your data. Often intricate understanding of the instrument is necessary to allow careful calibration and understanding of the data - and understanding of the data is necessary to find the best calibration methods (though one should think about that already at the design stage, too).

Similar skills come in handy when you are not directly involved in the design or building - but when you are working at a space agency as project coordinators (or however you want to call it) and planning or overseeing how the science and engineering teams spend your money - thus basically when you are the guys reviewing what is being financed: you need to talk to scientists and engineers (and managers) alike. And of course scientific understanding and education in that field of astrophysics can also help you a lot if you work in the related industry who actually build instruments or instrumentation parts as it allows you also to talk to your customers in their language and understand their actual desires - and thus provide the better product.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! Do I understand correctly that since both physicists and engineers come to such complex projects, there is a need to fill knowledge gaps, and these gaps are filled while you work? (this may be especially true if a person has reached from a bachelor’s degree to a graduate degree, but only in technical sciences). $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 5, 2023 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ And could you give examples of problems from life in which a person needed a fusion of knowledge from engineering and astronomy? (for example, from the lives of your colleagues) $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 5, 2023 at 15:15
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It is quite common. For example, ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, has astronomers and engineers at work. They work together, since an astronomer should not need to know about designing the system and an engineer does not have to be interested in what the data means exactly. They have support from mechanical, electrical, software and other engineers.

Whenever knowledge of both is necessary, a team of multiple people is created (multidisciplinary teams). A project doesn't have to be big to have multiple people involved already, there are major benefits to working in groups.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! And when an astronomer and an engineer work on the same team, what “language” do they use to understand each other? Well, that is, there should be such a field? $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 7, 2023 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ @dtn You use whatever language works. Every individual is different. It's not just technical: working with Japanese engineers I've had some success communicating by writing notes in English, and reading their notes in Japanese. $\endgroup$
    – John Doty
    Dec 10, 2023 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDoty I meant how the astrophysicist’s glossary and the engineer’s glossary merge and a new one is obtained, which both use to understand each other. $\endgroup$
    – dtn
    Dec 12, 2023 at 5:24
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    $\begingroup$ @dtn If such a thing exists, it will be unofficial notes by one or more of the members. Often projects have an abbreviation summary, but those will never fully explain what is what. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Dec 12, 2023 at 9:44

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