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Practical science: physics and astronomy

The activities in this practical science module offer a choice of topics in physics and astronomy as diverse as the properties of electrons and the likelihood of life on other planets. Online – from the comfort of your own home – you’ll have the opportunity to use equipment ranging from a bench-top NMR spectrometer to an astronomical telescope in Mallorca. Or you can attend a three-night residential school in Mallorca – the cost of the accommodation and travel to Mallorca is not included in the module fee. The module ends with an exciting team project, where you will work with students from other modules in this Practical science series.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
2 9 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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What you will study

Scientific enquiry, whether in the field or in the laboratory, proceeds through objective observation and experimentation: the questions ’why?’ and ’how?’ are explored through interactions and tests inspired by ’what if …?’. Skilled practical scientists reveal underlying relationships by devising questions that can be addressed safely; they report effectively and critically evaluate their findings. By studying this module you will develop these skills that are essential for practical work.

The module is delivered via a choice of online activities. For the second activity, we are also able to offer a residential option (Option 3 below). However, places on the residential option are limited, and it may not be suitable for all students. The residential option also carries additional charges – see the residential school section below for further details.

You can study the four practical activities in one of the following three combinations:

For the first two practical activities you will have a choice from the following options when you register:

Option 1

  • NMR: molecules and imaging (non-residential activity) and
  • Probing the electron (non-residential activity)

Option 2

  • Astronomy: robotic telescope (non-residential activity - subject to available places) and
  • Probing the electron (non-residential activity)

Option 3

  • NMR: molecules and imaging (non-residential activity) and
  • Astronomy: Mallorca (residential school - subject to available places)

For the final two non-residential practical activities you will study:

  • Remote observations
  • Formation and habitability of planets.

NMR: molecules and imaging – In this activity you will explore the fundamentals of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. After learning the basics of the technique, by measuring frequency-intensity data, you will investigate the 1H NMR spectroscopy of simple organic molecules, spin-spin coupling and correlation charts. You will complete this activity by exploring the fundamental relationship between proton resonance frequency and magnetic field strength and investigating key features of MR imaging. In a remote control experiment, you will be able to establish the key principles of spatial localisation in one dimension. In an interactive screen experiment, you will discover how to measure a spin-lattice relaxation time. As a result, you will be able to appreciate key features (localisation and contrast) of a MR medical image. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of chemistry and physics.

Probing the electron – This activity is about charged particles and radiation. In particular you will be able to conduct two standard laboratory experiments – either remotely or through replaying data from our archives as an interactive screen experiment (ISE). These investigations lead to the determination of two fundamental properties of the electron: its mass and its charge, using Compton scattering of X-rays and the Lorentz force on a beam of electrons. These are classic experiments in physics and their interpretation relates to special relativity and electromagnetism. The instruments involved include a scintillator, a photomultiplier, a Hall probe and basic ways of measuring voltage, current, distance and angle. Although the values of m and e are already well known, this activity will develop your skills in conducting practical investigations.

Remote observation – What can we discover about our planet – and others – using remote sensors? This activity will guide you through the manipulation and interpretation of large-scale observational data on oceans, atmosphere and planetary surfaces, mainly using geographic information system (GIS) techniques. You will use an open-source GIS software package, guided by instructions produced specifically for this activity. The study materials include projects focused on ocean colour, Martian landforms, atmospheric spectra, and land cover change. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of geology, environmental science, physics, chemistry and biology.

Formation and habitability of planets – How do planets form? What makes a planet capable of hosting life? How we can tell? These are the exciting questions that science is now beginning to answer. You can get a feel for the challenges, pleasures and pitfalls of planetary science in this activity. After completing the necessary background, you will examine meteorites to extract evidence for how planets began to grow, and study detailed images of parts of Mars (obtained from orbit) to design a strategy for a lander mission intended to search for signs of life. This activity is interdisciplinary and combines aspects of geology, planetary science, astronomy, physics, environmental science, and biology.

Optional activities:

(In option 2) Astronomy: robotic telescope – Using a remotely operable optical astronomical telescope over the internet you will acquire multi-colour photometric data of a number of sources, to derive constraints on their physical nature. Working in a group with up to four other students, you will have real-time access to our 17-inch robotic telescope in Mallorca for one observing night. As clear skies cannot be guaranteed, this activity is designed in such a way that it can also be conducted with pre-existing data. We recommend that you register early if you wish to study this activity as the number of places is limited.

(In option 3) Astronomy: Mallorca – This three-night residential school, based at the Observatori Astronòmic de Mallorca on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, will give you the opportunity to use a pool of optical astronomical telescopes equipped with a CCD detector. You will acquire and analyse multi-colour photometric data of a number of sources, to derive constraints on their physical nature. As clear skies cannot be guaranteed, this activity is designed in such a way that it can also be conducted with pre-existing data. We recommend that you register early if you wish to study this activity as the number of places is limited. See the Residential school section below for further details.

Method of study

During the module you will be required to use your own personal computer to access experiments and data, and to analyse and report results for the non-residential activities. You should be prepared to set aside several periods of up to half a day for completing some of the tasks. Therefore, to study this module successfully, you must be able to study regularly (for 8-10 hours per week) and have broadband access to the internet (for up to 4 hours per week) throughout the duration of the module.

Some tasks within the module will require scheduled interactions either with equipment or with your tutor group. Therefore this module may not be suitable for you if you are often unavailable for study for more than a week at a time. The end-of-module assessment (team project) will require working online in a group during the month of September, and if you are unavailable for study, or do not have regular access to a broadband internet connection, for more than a week during this time you may not be able to complete the module satisfactorily.

Team project

At the end of the module you will join a multidisciplinary team to complete a short project on contemporary practical science. You’ll work collaboratively with students from other modules in this Practical science series, using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums.  Experience of this kind of professional teamwork is highly regarded by many employers.

Other practical science modules in this series

You must study one of the modules in this series as the practical element of our BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences and Diploma of Higher Education in Natural Sciences.

You will learn

The practical skills developed in this module include:

  • planning and conducting observations and experiments
  • data handling
  • data presentation
  • report writing
  • safe working
  • professional team-working.

You will catalogue evidence of your achievement of these in a Skills Portfolio that forms part of the assessment.

Vocational relevance

While studying a variety of interesting topics, this module will develop your problem-solving abilities, team working and use of computers for learning and communication. All these skills are likely to be useful in a work context, particularly for jobs requiring a precise and quantitative approach.

Professional recognition

This module is part of the Institute of Physics accredited pathway through the BSc (Hons) Natural Sciences.

Outside the UK

This module is open to students based outside the UK.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with your general progress, and who you can ask for academic advice and guidance. In addition, each practical activity will be supported by specialist tutors.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs).

Residential school

This module includes an optional three-day residential school, Astronomy: Mallorca, which is run by the Observatori Astronòmic in Mallorca on behalf of The Open University. It will be offered on two dates in April.

Places are limited and available on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis, so we recommend that you register as early as you can if you wish to take part in this activity.

You will have to make your own accommodation and travel arrangements to get to and around Mallorca. These costs are not included the module fee. An evening meal will be provided at the Observatori but other meal costs are not included.

More information is available from our residential schools website.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that started in February 2014 for the last time. A replacement module Practical science: physics and astronomy (SXPA288) will be available from October 2014.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
Embedded residential school


This is a OU level 2 module and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through study with the OU, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

To complete this module successfully you do need some basic mathematical skills and experience of practical observations and measurements in a scientific context. An appropriate level of mathematical and scientific knowledge can be obtained by studying Exploring science (S104) and either Investigative and mathematical skills in science (S141) or Scientific investigations (S155) plus appropriate OU level 2 modules.

You should have completed at least 60 credits of OU level 2 study in physics/astronomy before starting this module. We recommend that you study SXP288 as the final OU level 2 module of your degree.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.


Start End Fee
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

This module is expected to start for the last time in February 2014.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your annual fees and spreads them out over up to a year, enabling you to pay your fees monthly and walk away with a qualification without any further debt. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in 10 OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Gift vouchers

You can pay for part or all of your tuition fees with OU gift vouchers. Vouchers are currently available in the following denominations, £10, £20, £50 and £100. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. You may, for example wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser.

Note: Your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is based upon current details for  year 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.
This information was provided on 17/09/2014.

What's included

The study and assessment materials will be delivered online, with the exception of a DVD-ROM.

The cost of the accommodation for any residential activities that you choose is not included in the module fee. You will also be responsible for your own travel arrangements. See the Residential school section above for details.

You will need

Broadband internet access is required for the non-residential activities and a digital camera is also highly desirable to record images of your work.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some module software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2008 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile device is not suitable for this module – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this module by running Windows on it using Boot Camp or a similar dual-boot system.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information (including details of the support we provide).

If you have a disability

Study material will be delivered entirely online and will include printable versions of web pages for students to use should they wish. Some Adobe PDF components may not be fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical and scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Students with hearing impairments may have difficulty participating in the audio conferences but should be able to participate fully in online forum discussions. Written transcripts of audio- and audio-visual clips will be included in the study materials.

Some aspects of this module are not fully accessible to all visually impaired students and studying them will require extra time and possibly use of a sighted helper. Students with manual dexterity problems may need assistance to complete some experiments. 

As the module is primarily web-based, you will need to make extensive use of a computer and the internet. If you use mobile technology, or specialist hardware or software to assist you in operating a computer or with the types of material outlined above you are advised to talk to the Student Registration & Enquiry Service about the support available to meet your needs. 

The activities Astronomy: Mallorca (residential) and Astronomy: robotic telescope may be challenging if your sight is severely impaired because of the essentially visual nature of the investigations and the observational skills required.

At the residential school Astronomy: Mallorca you will study for three consecutive nights at the Observatori Astronomic. The Observatori Astronòmic laboratories are accessible to wheelchair users. The site is flat but some paths between the buildings are narrow and offer only low level lighting at night. There will be scheduled breaks for an evening meal and a midnight snack but the opportunity for additional rest, if required, will also be available in the catering area of the observatory. You may wish to consider travelling to Mallorca one day earlier, to allow yourself sufficient rest, and again to allow time to rest before travelling home. We have a list of recommended hotels that have a small number of adapted rooms for wheelchair users, as well as wheelchair access and lifts to all floors. You will be transported between these hotels and the observatory each day by coach. You may choose to stay elsewhere but you will have to provide your own transport to and from the observatory.

The staff at the Observatori will make every effort to accommodate additional requirements if they have sufficient notice but please note that it might not always be possible to fully meet your needs. It is therefore essential that you make contact with the Disability Resources Team  before selecting the Mallorca activity.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.