Remote experiments in physics and space
This is a practical science module with activities in astronomy, physics and planetary science. It builds on your previous study, adding a vital element of experimental work. The investigations cover aspects as diverse as quantum mechanics; properties of electrons; planetary atmospheres and surface processes; and the structure and contents of the Milky Way. You’ll use remote equipment ranging from an X-ray spectrometer to an optical telescope in Tenerife or a radio telescope in Milton Keynes. You’ll build your experience and expertise in practical investigation, including observation, hypothesising and reporting skills. An exciting project develops team-working skills critical to collaborative scientific enquiry.
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 the design of a future space mission. This activity will build on your knowledge of experimental design, instrumentation, and team working. 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.
This module has no formal entry requirements.
However, you must have the following:
- an appropriate level of mathematical ability
- a knowledge of either physics or astronomy/planetary science
- some experience of computer programming using Python or a similar language.
Check you’re ready with our interactive self-assessment activity.
If you’re still not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.
We recommend you’ve passed the following OU Level 1 modules:
- Essential mathematics 1 (MST124)
- Questions in science (S111) or its predecessor Exploring science (S104)
- Physics and space (SM123)
At OU Level 2, we recommend you’ve successfully completed any one of the following:
- Physics: from classical to quantum (S217)
- The physical world (S207) – discontinued
- Astronomy (S282) and Planetary science and the search for life (S283)
We’ll provide preparatory reading materials for the OU Level 2 modules on this list that you haven’t studied.
You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:
- a week-by-week study planner
- course-specific module materials
- audio and video content
- assessment details and submission section
- online tutorial access.
You’ll also have access to the OpenScience laboratory where you will conduct your online experiments.
Some of the live interactive experiments and activities will direct you to third-party websites outside of the Open University.
You will need
- A scientific calculator
- A digital camera or scanner to record images of your work (recommended, but not essential)
You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11), or macOS (11 'Big Sur' or higher).
Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.
To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).
Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.
Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.
It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.