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Astrophysics

If you are interested in using quantitative physical methods to understand the building blocks of the Universe, and already have a good background in OU level 2 maths, physics and astronomy, then this is the module for you. This module focuses on the astrophysics of stars and exoplanets – examining their properties, structure, evolution and the physical processes that occur within them. The OU’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and internet-based resources are used throughout the module. You’ll experience real, collaborative astrophysical research, online with a small group of other students, to acquire, reduce, analyse and interpret data.

What you will study

This is a module that builds on skills and concepts you will have developed by studying maths, physics and astronomy at a level equivalent to OU level 2 modules. Although it requires a slightly lower level of mathematics than other OU level 3 physics and astronomy modules, it builds on a broader range of OU level 2 material.

Part 1, Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis, is based around a book which allows you to investigate the properties of stars at different stages of their evolution – how they form, what happens to them as they age, and what becomes of them when they die. You will also explore the physical processes that sustain the energy output of stars during each stage of their evolution and drive the progression from one stage to the next, as well as the relationship between different stages of stellar evolution and the production of the chemical elements. Your study of this part will allow you to develop basic concepts of hydrodynamics, thermodynamics, plasma physics, quantum physics and nuclear physics.

Part 2, Transiting Exoplanets, is based around a book which allows you to explore the methods used in the detection and characterisation of exoplanets, and their physical properties. In 1995 the first planet around a main sequence star other than the Sun was discovered. Since then hundreds of exoplanets have been found, creating one of the most exciting and fast moving research fields in astrophysics. This part focuses on the transiting exoplanets because these are the only planets outside our own solar system with measured sizes. You will explore the methods used to determine the atmospheric properties of transiting exoplanets, to measure the planetary orbit’s alignment with the stellar spin, and to observe the effects of the intense irradiation suffered by some of these planets. You will discover what these measurements imply for reinvigorated theories of planet formation and evolution, and will examines the question ‘is life unique to Earth?’ in the context of exoplanet research.

Part 3, Astrophysical Data Analysis, is rather different from a conventional text. It is a practical component that you study at home, linked via the internet with a small group of students with whom you will work collaboratively on a project involving astrophysical data analysis and interpretation. You will acquire data either from the OU’s robotic telescope (PIRATE) or from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) archive. In the first case you will devise a project based around photometric light curves of newly discovered variable stars, while in the second case you will devise a project concerning optical spectroscopy of previously unstudied quasars. In either case, your group will acquire, reduce, analyse and interpret a unique dataset before presenting a wiki on your findings. You will record your individual project activities in a series of Progress Reports and will contribute to the final group wiki report. Note: although you may express a preference for either the PIRATE version of the project or the SDSS version of the project, we cannot guarantee that you will be allocated the one you prefer. A broadband internet connection is recommended for this project and is particularly important for the PIRATE version where you will be downloading and working with a large volume of data.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module that builds on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from previous studies at OU levels 1 and 2. It is intended for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject at this level.

The module is designed to follow Astronomy (S282), Planetary science and the search for life (S283), Remote experiments in physics and space (SXPS288) (or its predecessor SXPA288) and Mathematical methods (MST224). The following parts of these modules are especially important:

  • Stellar structure and evolution in S282
  • Exoplanets in S283
  • Differentiation and integration in MST224.

The parts of S282 relating to active galaxies are important as preparation for the SDSS version of the embedded project for this module. If you have studied one of the astronomy activities of SXPS288 you will be better prepared for the PIRATE version.

Both versions of the embedded project require considerable use of IT resources, including downloading data from the web, extensive use of spreadsheets and other analysis software, and contributing to wikis and forums.

It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully. The Science Faculty has produced a booklet Are You Ready For S382/S383? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need some extra preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

As a result of taking the Are you ready for S382? test, you may find that you need to study a further module or modules before embarking on S382. If this is not possible, you may choose to spend time studying relevant background material. For this purpose we have produced a ‘Book 0’ for S382 (and the related module S383) entitled An introduction to astrophysics and cosmology, which you may download as a PDF. This document covers the recommended background knowledge and skills that we expect students to possess before embarking on S382. If you need to study all the maths, physics and astronomy background contained within this Book 0, we estimate it will require about 40–60 hours of study. It is not a replacement for taking the appropriate OU level 2 modules, but it will serve to fill the gaps in your knowledge in many cases.

What's included

You'll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access.

You'll also be provided with two printed module books and a DVD-ROM.

You will need

Basic scientific calculator.

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 device that meets the requirements below.

  • A desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows
  • The screen must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

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.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part. If you want to participate, you’ll likely need a headset with a microphone.

Assessment

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

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You will, however, be granted the option of submitting on paper if typesetting electronically or merging scanned images of your answers to produce an electronic TMA would take you an unacceptably long time.

There will be a mixture of online interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs) and short tutor-marked assignments (TMAs), with a total workload equivalent of three full TMAs.

Both the iCMAs and TMAs will focus strongly on learning through practice rather than on assessment. The feedback you receive on your answers will help you to improve your knowledge and understanding of the study material and to develop important skills associated with the module. The feedback on the iCMAs will be instantaneous and hints will be given so that you can refine any incorrect answers. Although your scores on all these assignments will not contribute directly to your module grade, they form an essential part of the learning process and you will be required to submit a proportion of them to complete the module.

Your overall module grade will be based on two examinable components. The first is a portfolio of work comprising your individual Progress Reports and the collaborative group wiki for Part 3 of the module which you submit at the end of this study period. The other is an end-of-module written examination based on Parts 1 and 2.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S382 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Astrophysics (S382) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2020.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2022.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
5 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
Examination
No residential school

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