What you will study
You’ll conduct all the live experimental investigations remotely. This parallels the way many modern scientific investigations are conducted. It’s no longer necessary to travel to a remote mountaintop to use the latest telescope – you can book time and control equipment remotely. The same applies to a particle accelerator or other major scientific installations. Space-based explorations such as a space telescope or Mars rover are operated remotely. The remote experimentation skills you’ll develop are directly relevant to finding employment in the space sector.
Cooperation and group work are also characteristic features of scientific investigations. Large-scale enterprises like the Large Hadron Collider or the Mars Curiosity rover can operate only if many people work together. By working with fellow students and supported by research experts, you’ll achieve more than any one person working alone. You’ll develop vital employability skills in communication, collaboration and professional team working.
There are three main investigations – covering astronomy, physics, and planetary science:
Astronomy: Exploring the Milky Way
In this investigation you’ll use either an optical telescope (PIRATE) or a radio telescope (ARROW) to investigate the structure and content of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
The optical observations concern photometry of open and globular clusters of stars in different wavebands. From this, you’ll compile a colour-magnitude diagram to estimate properties such as the age and distance of the clusters.
The observations at radio wavelengths are of emissions from interstellar hydrogen. From this, you’ll map out the spiral arms and determine the structure of the Galaxy.
The two techniques complement each other. Whichever instrument you use, you’ll be contributing to an investigation into the structure and content of the Galaxy. You’ll typically work in a group with four other students, supported by experts in either optical or radio astronomy.
You must choose from the two options (PIRATE or ARROW) at the start of the module. We’ll provide full descriptions of both projects, together with a discussion forum, to help you choose. Places on each telescope option are limited, so book early to maximise your chances of getting an observing session on your preferred activity.
Physics: Electron–photon interactions
This activity, about charged particles and radiation, is split into two investigations.
In the first investigation, you’ll use an interactive screen experiment (ISE) to measure the deflection of a beam of electrons in a magnetic field. You’ll use this to measure a fundamental property of the electron – its charge to mass ratio.
The second investigation is a live experiment in which you'll use apparatus in a lab at the OU campus using remote control software. You’ll investigate the process of Compton scattering – the interaction of X-ray photons with individual electrons. During your studies of the Compton effect, you’ll be recreating a Nobel Prize-winning experiment and confirming a fundamental result in quantum mechanics.
This activity will develop your skills in conducting practical investigations including calibration of equipment, handling of experimental errors and the presentation and interpretation of results.
Planetary science: Mars atmosphere and surface
This investigation is centred around an imagined space mission to Mars. In the first phase you’ll carry out a live experimental investigation using infrared spectroscopy to determine properties of planetary atmospheres. You’ll be making use of technology designed by researchers at the OU and flown on actual space missions.
The second part of the investigation concerns planetary surface processes. Using genuine Mars data, you’ll learn how to process and extract information from public domain datasets. You’ll use this to model processes such as the production and evolution of the atmosphere and surface features of another planet.
Towards the end of the module, you’ll complete a short team-based project involving mathematical modelling and analysis of experimental data relating to your Mars investigations. This activity will guide you through the manipulation and interpretation of observational data on planetary atmospheres and surfaces. You’ll learn how differential equations are used to model physical systems. You’ll work collaboratively with your team using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums.
You will learn
The practical skills developed in this module include:
- experimental technique and experimental design
- planning and conducting observations and experiments
- data handling, including computer programming for data analysis
- data presentation
- report writing
- safe working
- professional team working.
Many of the practical skills you’ll develop in this module are highly sought after by employers. These transferable skills can be applied in many different scientific or commercial settings, especially to the rapidly expanding space sector in the UK and further afield.