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Practical science: physics and astronomy

The activities in this practical science module address topics in physics and astronomy as diverse as the properties of electrons and the brightness and colour of stars. Online – from the comfort of your own home – you’ll have the opportunity to use equipment ranging from a bench-top X-ray spectrometer to an optical telescope in Tenerife or a radio telescope in Milton Keynes. The aim is to build experience and expertise in practical investigation, including the skills of observation, hypothesising and reporting. The module ends with an exciting project that develops team-working skills that are critical to collaborative scientific enquiry.

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

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Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level
Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
2 9 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
See 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: good experimental design starts with a clearly defined and testable hypothesis or research question and proceeds by assembling the necessary equipment and techniques to carry out investigations to test that hypothesis. Skilled practical scientists reveal underlying relationships by devising questions that they can address safely; they report effectively; and critically evaluate their findings. By studying this module, you’ll develop skills such as calibration, data analysis and data interpretation that are essential for practical work.

You’ll study three main topics:

Astronomy: robotic telescope – Using a remotely operable astronomical instrument over the Internet, you’ll conduct investigations with either an optical telescope (PIRATE) or a radio telescope (ARROW).

The optical observations concern photometry of open and globular clusters of stars in different wavebands, from which you can compile a colour-magnitude diagram in order to estimate properties such as the age and distance of the clusters. As we can’t guarantee clear skies, we’ve designed this activity so that you can also conduct it with archive data if necessary.

The alternative observations at radio wavelengths are of the emissions from interstellar hydrogen, from which we can deduce the structure of our galaxy. You’ll generally do this during the day, so bad weather will affect it less; nevertheless, archive data sets are available in case you can’t complete your observations.

Whichever instrument you use, you’ll be working in a group with up to four other students. You’ll need to choose from the two options (PIRATE or ARROW) at the start of the module: places on each telescope option are limited and will be available on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis, so book early to maximise your chances of getting an observing session on your preferred activity.

Probing the electron – This activity is about charged particles and radiation. You’ll conduct two classic laboratory experiments – one using real-time remotely operated X-ray equipment and the other 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 depends on special relativity and electromagnetism.

This activity will develop your skills in conducting practical investigations including calibration of equipment, handling of experimental uncertainties and the presentation and interpretation of results. In the course of your investigations into the Compton effect, you’ll also be recreating a Nobel Prize-winning experiment that confirmed a fundamental result in quantum mechanics – that photons carry momentum.

NMR: molecules and imaging – In this activity you’ll explore the fundamentals of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. After learning the basics of the technique, by measuring frequency-intensity data, you’ll investigate the 1H NMR spectroscopy of simple organic molecules, spin-spin coupling and correlation charts. You’ll complete this activity by exploring the fundamental relationship between proton resonance frequency and magnetic field strength and investigating key features of MR imaging. You’ll 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’ll be able to appreciate key features (localisation and contrast) of MR medical images.

Team project

At the end of the module you’ll complete a short team-based project involving mathematical modelling and practical analysis relating to experimental data. This activity will guide you through the manipulation and interpretation of large-scale observational data on oceans, atmosphere and planetary surfaces and you’ll learn how differential equations are used to model physical systems. Teams will share tasks of researching a practical context, modelling and experimentation. You will work collaboratively with your team using a variety of communication methods, including scheduled online forums. Experience of this kind of professional teamwork is highly regarded by many employers.

Method of study

You’ll be required to use your own personal computer to interact with remote experiments and to process data, and to analyse and report results. 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 will require scheduled interactions either with equipment or with your tutor group. Therefore, this module might 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 from the end of April to the end of May, and if you’re unavailable for study, or don’t have regular access to a broadband internet connection, for more than a week during this time, you might not be able to complete the module satisfactorily.

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.

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. 

Contact us 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.

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

Future availability

Practical science: physics and astronomy (SXPA288) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2026.


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

    Course work includes:

    3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
    End-of-module assessment
    No residential school

    Course satisfaction survey

    See the satisfaction survey results for this course.

    Entry requirements

    You need to have an appropriate level of mathematical knowledge and experience of practical scientific observations and measurements.

    You’d normally be prepared by completing OU level 1 and 2 study as part of one of our physics or astronomy and planetary science qualifications. For this module we recommend that you’ve passed Essential mathematics 1 (MST124); Questions in science (S111) or its predecessor Exploring science (S104); Mathematical methods (MST224); and Physics: from classical to quantum (S217), its predecessor The physical world (S207), or both Astronomy (S282) and Planetary science and the search for life (S283).

    If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.


    Start End Fee
    - - -

    No current presentation - see Future availability

    This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2026.

    Additional Costs

    Study costs

    There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

    If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

    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 monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

    Joint loan applications

    If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

    As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

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

    Employer sponsorship

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

    More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module 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 module.  

    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. 

    Mixed payments

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

    For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time convenient to you.

    Please 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 valid for modules starting before 31 July 2019. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

    This information was provided on 19/12/2018.

    What's included

    All study and assessment materials will be delivered online.

    You will need

    A digital camera is recommended to record images of your work.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module.  Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a desktop or laptop computer with Windows 7 or higher.

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To participate in our online-discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones. 

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students. 

    If you have a disability

    The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying SXPA288 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

    To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our Disability support website.