Science of the Night Sky

This course is designed to allow you to make scientific observations from your own back garden. The course is primarily a practical one – you will be required to make observations using your telescope. This course will enable you to become familiar with using a small telescope to make your own observations, and then using your observations to determine the properties of celestial objects.

Here at the Astrophysics Research Institute we run a selection of life-long learning courses that can be taken by students who do not have any specialist scientific or mathematical background. These courses are taken as part time distance learning courses; they are entirely online - you do not need to attend any on-site classes.

The course is split into the following sections:

  1. Introduction to Astronomy: What should you expect to see through an amateur telescope? This section details the types of telescope available (refractors and reflectors) and the associated advantages and disadvantages with each type. Information is also provided on testing telescope equipment for pointing accuracy and limiting resolution under different conditions. This section also covers the co-ordinate system of the celestial sphere with an introduction to positional astronomy, angular sizes and distances, time zones and details how the changing of the seasons affects what we can observe. This part of the course is accompanied by a detailed tour of the night sky to introduce beginners to the constellations and the many and varied objects of interest contained within them that are observable with a small telescope.


  2. The Moon: The Earth’s nearest neighbour is easily the brightest object in the night sky and one that everyone is familiar with. This section the phases of the Moon and the effects of libration on what we can observe. The practical exercise associated with this section involves measuring the heights of the mountains on the Moon from your observations. In addition this section contains information on eclipses (both solar and lunar) and details observation of the Sun and what features you can expect to see e.g. flares, prominences and sunspots.


  3. Observing the Planets: The eight other known planets in our solar system provide an interesting and varied collection of targets for observations. This section details what you can expect to see with a small telescope on each of the planets and their major satellites along with the best times to observe them. Information is given on how the orbits of the planets affect their visibility and discussion is given to topics such as retrograde motion and timings of favourable oppositions. The practical section of this chapter will involve using your observations of the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn to calculate the planets’ masses using simple physical laws.


  4. Variable Stars: Not all of the stars in the night sky have a constant brightness. There are many types of variable stars ranging from pulsating Cepheid variables to eclipsing binaries. This chapter covers the types of variable stars and gives the best examples of each type. The practical assignment involves using your observations of certain variable stars to produce light curves and thus determine the type of variable.


The course lasts for nine months. You will be expected to produce three pieces of coursework throughout the course. Overall we expect that you will need to put around 120 hours of time into the course.

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