Steven is an astronomer: ‘It is still not entirely clear how unique life on earth is’ | What does a…

What does a…Those who grow our job landscape will see special positions passing by. A field service engineer, a lab technician or an assembly worker: we desperately needed them, but why and why? In this series, every week someone tells about his or her profession. Today: Dr. Steven Bloemen (36), astronomer and manager of astronomical instrumentation projects at Radboud University.

What exactly do you do?
“As an astronomer – also known as an astronomer – I do research into stars, planets and other objects in the universe. You can’t do a controlled experiment as easily as in many other sciences. You observe all kinds of things and try to understand what is happening and how it works.

I personally work as a manager of astronomical instrumentation projects at the astronomical department of Radboud University. On the one hand, I look with fellow scientists at which instruments they need for their research. On the other hand, I work with engineers and other experts who have to build these instruments. I am the pivot between research and instrumentation.”

How many celestial bodies have you discovered in your career?
“To be honest, I don’t know! It’s hard to put a number on that. If you discover the entire observer long enough with a large telescope, you will discover new stars, planets and other objects anyway. So ‘discovery’ is not an end in itself.”

How did you get into this profession?
,,My fascination for the starry sky only started when I started studying physics in Leuven. Then you will also receive training in sub-aspects of physics, including astronomy. That appealed to me. On the one hand because the universe is fascinating, underground because I had less contact with the theoretical sides of physics, such as mathematics.”

What does an average working day look like?
“To observe celestial bodies you need a clear sky with little light pollution. Then you quickly end up in sparsely populated countries with good weather. For example, I was in Chile for three weeks in September to develop a telescope. Then you are at an altitude of 2300 meters. I also work with colleagues in different time zones, so sometimes I also meet in the evening. And if a telescope breaks down at the weekend, it has to be fixed.”


To observe celestial objects you need a clear sky with little light pollution. Then you quickly end up in sparsely populated countries with good weather

What do you like most about this job?
“It is fascinating to be busy with big questions. What is a Black Hole? How many planets are there outside our solar system? Is there alien life? Every day you can investigate botviers. Moreover, the instrumentation side of astronomy is a very multidisciplinary environment; I work a lot with specialists and I am still learning every day.”

Is there anything less fun?
“Seeking funding for research into instrument construction is and remains a necessary evil. It is always tricky and takes a lot of time and energy. If an application fails, it doesn’t give you a good feeling. Besides, you know that you have to try again afterwards.”

What skills do you need to become an astronomer?
,,If you want to be on the research side, it is important that you have an interest in wisdom and physics. You must be able to analyze problems and have insight into complex matters. But astronomy is multidisciplinary. When people ask me if they can do something in astronomy, I always say that there are many possibilities. From technicians to lawyers; the teams that make the research possible together are large and diverse.”

What do you see happening sooner: the discovery of extraterrestrial life from a human-led flight to Mars?
“I don’t see the point of a manned flight to Mars. I wonder what we achieve with an unmanned flight, which we cannot also achieve with an unmanned flight. That’s why I hope that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will happen sooner. We now know that there are many planets in the universe. It is not yet entirely clear how unique life on Earth is. Extraterrestrial life would therefore really make a major breakthrough.”

Will you continue to do this work until you retire?
“I don’t know what’s coming my way. I notice that there are a lot of interest and ongoing projects that I like to work on. For example, we are now building a telescope in Namibia. How do you ensure that not only the instrument is built properly, but also that the country benefits from it? I would like to deal with these kinds of questions.”

Instrument makers wanted

Like Dr. Steven Bloemen, do you also find it very interesting to work instruments? Then you can also work as a junior engineer in radio astronomy or as a developer of temperature sensors. You can find relevant vacancies in your region on the National Vacature Bank.

Curious about working at Radboud University? You will find all current vacancies on the career page of the university.

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