Module code: PHY2071

Module provider


Module Leader

READ JI Prof (Physics)

Number of Credits


ECT Credits



FHEQ Level 5

JACs code


Module cap (Maximum number of students)


Module Availability

Semester 2

Overall student workload

Independent Study Hours: 84

Lecture Hours: 22

Tutorial Hours: 11

Laboratory Hours: 20

Assessment pattern

Assessment type Unit of assessment Weighting

Alternative Assessment


Prerequisites / Co-requisites

A suitable introductory course in computing programming, such as PHY1038 or MAT1035.

Module overview

This module presents a complete introduction to modern astronomy and astrophysics. We start by introducing astronomy as a unique science; measurement in astronomy (position on the sky, velocity and distance); and multi-messenger probes. We then discuss acceleration due to gravity (the dominant force in the Universe) and we show that timescales are typically so long that we must use models to calculate what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. Armed with an understanding of how to make measurements in astronomy and how to model gravity, we then move from the smallest scales to the largest, studying first the interstellar medium from which stars form; stellar structure and evolution; and stellar remnants (white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes). We compare and contrast the latest models for how planets form and we discuss the prospects for detecting life and intelligent life beyond Earth. Finally, we discuss the formation and evolution of galaxies in the Universe and the Universe as a whole. We show that the Universe appears to be mostly dark: dark matter (~22%) and dark energy (~74%). Understanding what these mysterious components are is one of the key challenges for physics in the next decade.

The module includes either a computer or telescope project. Students enrolled in physics with astronomy with undertake the telescope project where (weather willing) students will gain hands on experience of taking real observational data. They will develop software tools to analyse and interpret these data and write up a final report. Students not enrolled in physics with astronomy will undertake a computational project of similar scope and length, also culminating in a final report.

Module aims

Familiarise students with measurement in astronomy, our place in the cosmos, and our current understanding of the formation of our Sun, the Solar System, our Galaxy, and the Universe as a whole.

Teach students about the mysterious composition of our Universe that appears to be mostly “dark matter” and “dark energy”.

Explore ideas on the fate of the Universe from the death of our Sun, to the collision of our Galaxy with its nearby neighbour Andromeda, and the gradual fading away of the Universe as a whole as its expansion accelerates under the influence of dark energy.

Develop, via the telescope/computer project, the students' ability to make observations and collect astronomical data (telescope project only); to write a computer program; to understand and implement numerical algorithms; and to interpret data to obtain physical understanding.

Learning outcomes

Attributes Developed
Understand and be able to describe our place in the cosmos and explain current theories on the formation of the Sun, the Solar System, our Galaxy, and the Universe as a whole KC
Explain how measurements are made in astronomy and the limitations inherent in having only one Universe at one moment in time to look at KC
Understand the key evidences for “dark matter” and “dark energy” in the Universe and be able to describe how these shape the past and future evolution of the cosmos KC
Demonstrate skills in designing and creating computer programs to perform calculations of physics problems KPT
Formulate computational solutions of physics problems KPT
Collect astronomical data (telescope project only; KPT
Communicate scientific results, and write scientific reports PT

Attributes Developed

C - Cognitive/analytical

K - Subject knowledge

T - Transferable skills

P - Professional/Practical skills

Module content

Indicative content includes:

- Astronomy as a unique science -

Astronomy as a “third” discipline distinct from experimental and theoretical physics. How to cope with the Universe as a single data point. Measurement in astronomy: photons, cosmic rays, neutrinos, gravitational waves, and multi-messenger probes. A sense of scale; the celestial sphere;  a brief tour of the cosmos.

- Observables -

Absolute magnitude and luminosity; apparent magnitude and flux. Basic properties of stars and the HR diagram. Resolved versus unresolved light. Gas and dust in the Universe. The parsec, parallax distance and the distance ladder. Measuring velocity and acceleration.

- Gravity -

Timescales in astronomy and the need for theoretical models. Gravity as the dominant force in the cosmos. How to determine the gravitational field and force. Motion under gravity: from the 'one-body' to the 'N-body' problem.

- The interstellar medium (ISM) and star formation -

The composition of the ISM. Mie theory and dust reddening; optical depth and column density. The Virial theorem. The Jeans mass and length. Gravitational collapse, fragmentation and star formation.

- Stellar structure -

Hydrostatic equilibrium; equation of mass conservation; pressure equation of state; relation to the Virial theorem; towards a stellar model.

- Stellar evolution -

Stellar structure revisited; the mass-luminosity relation of stars; the Eddington luminosity limit; energy sources and timescales; the final structure equations; stellar lifetimes; the main sequence; stellar energy sources

- Post main sequence and stellar remnants -

Giant stars; the degenerate equation of state; post main sequence evolution; mass loss (from giant stars to white dwarfs); the critical Chandrasekhar mass; the eventual fate of massive stars.

- Planets -

Protoplanetary discs; planet formation (two competing models); the Solar System; Exoplanets; the hunt for life.

- Galaxies -

A brief history of galaxies; the Local Group of galaxies and Galactic Archaeology; galaxy classification and galaxy populations; galaxy clusters; galaxy rotation curves and other evidences for “dark matter”; galaxy formation models. - The Universe -

The homogeneous isotropic Universe (Hubble, Lemaitre and Friedmann; Olbers' paradox). The dynamics of the expansion; the “Big Bang” and the age of the Universe; cosmological probes (Type Ia supernovae and the cosmic microwave background radiation); “dark energy”; the future of the Universe.

- Telescope/Computer Project -

An extended problem aligned to topics in this module. For physics with astronomy students, the students observe real astronomical data (weather willing), or in the event of poor weather use pre-existing data. They write a program to calibrate and analyse these data to obtain physical insight and to show that they understand the physical system. Results are obtained over 10 weeks, and then a report is written on the results. In the report the student presents their data, any software written to analyse these data, and they discusses the physical significance of the results. Students not enrolled in physics with astronomy can opt to undertake the telescope project subject to availability, or undertake a computational project instead.



Methods of Teaching / Learning

The learning and teaching strategy is designed to increase students’ critical understanding of physics and astrophysics, and through this module to provide students with the opportunity to gain an introductory understanding of key concepts in astrophysics.

The learning and teaching methods include:

33h of lectures/tutorials as 3h/week over 11 weeks
22h of computational modelling/telescope laboratory as 2h/week over 11 weeks. The telescope laboratory will include night time observing trips.


Assessment Strategy

The assessment strategy is designed to provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of astronomy gained over the course. The exam and computer/telescope project will give students the opportunity to show that they have memorised, understood, and are able to creatively use the knowledge and skills that they have learned.


Thus, the summative assessment for this module consists of:

1.5 hour examination at the end of the semester (70%), with 2 questions chosen from 3.

An interim assessment of progress on the computational/telescope project, at around the mid-point of the project (7.5%).

A write-up of the results achieved, algorithm used, and physics explored and understood, at the end of the computational/telescope project (22.5%).


Formative assessment and feedback

For the lecture component:

Problem sets are provided on topics of astronomy each week which allow the students to test their understanding of course material and help to prepare them for the written exam. The solutions are discussed and expanded on in weekly tutorials to allow the students to assess their progress. Verbal feedback is provided at these hour-long tutorial sessions throughout the semester.


For the computational/telescope project component:

Each student is assigned an academic responsible for their project who will provide one-to-one feedback during the weekly sessions.


Reading list


Please note that the information detailed within this record is accurate at the time of publishing and may be subject to change. This record contains information for the most up to date version of the programme / module for the 2017/8 academic year.