England.  Change location

Remote experiments in physics and space

Qualification dates
Start End

This practical module comprises three live experiments collecting data from remote equipment, from an optical telescope in Tenerife to infrared and X-ray spectrometers based in Milton Keynes. Investigations cover aspects as diverse as the analysis of star clusters, estimation of the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron and analysis of planetary atmospheres. The module builds your expertise in practical investigation, experimental design, hypothesis testing, data processing and report writing. A key skill you’ll develop is using Python programming for processing, plotting and data analysis.

What you will study

You’ll conduct three remote experiments (working in small groups of 2–5) to control the hardware and collect data. You’ll learn to process your data with Python, interpret the results and write up your work as technical reports.

Remote investigations parallel the way many modern scientific investigations are conducted. It’s no longer necessary to travel to a remote mountaintop to use the latest telescope – instead, you can book time and control equipment remotely. Space-based explorations such as a space telescope or Mars rover are also operated remotely. The remote experimentation skills you’ll develop in this module are directly relevant to building your employability in the STEM sector.

Cooperation and group work are also characteristic features of research and commercial activity. 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.

You’ll find more details on each of the live experimental components are below:

Astronomy: Exploring the Milky Way
In this investigation, you’ll use an optical telescope (PIRATE or COAST) to investigate the properties of star clusters found in different parts of our galaxy, the Milky Way. You’ll obtain optical photometry in two wavebands of open and globular star clusters, from which you’ll compile colour-magnitude diagrams to estimate properties such as the ages and distances of the clusters.

You’ll typically work in a group with four other students, supported by experts in optical astronomy and the use of robotic telescopes.

You must choose from the two options (Observer mode or Queue-scheduled mode) at the start of the module. We’ll provide complete descriptions of both modes and a discussion forum to help you choose. Places for Observer mode may be limited, so book early to maximise your chances of getting an observing session if this is your preferred choice.

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 remotely controlled apparatus in a lab at the OU campus. 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: Exploring Mars’s atmosphere and surface environments
This investigation is centred around an imagined space mission to Mars. In the first phase, you’ll carry out a live experiment using infrared spectroscopy to quantitively and qualitatively characterise the properties of planetary atmospheres. You’ll be making use of technology designed by researchers at the OU and flown on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission.

The second part of the investigation concerns geological processes on planetary surfaces. Using genuine data from NASA’s Mars rovers, 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.

Team project: Designing a future space mission
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 (but are not limited to):

  • experimental design and hypothesis testing
  • data handling, including computer programming for data analysis (Python)
  • planning and conducting observations and experiments
  • data presentation
  • lab safety
  • professional team working
  • report writing.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements for this module.

At The Open University, we believe education should be open to all, so we provide high-quality university education to anyone who wishes to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.

Even though there are no entry requirements, you’ll need appropriate knowledge of mathematics and physics obtained through:

  • OU level 1 and 2 study
  • equivalent work at another higher education institution.

Are you ready for SXPS288?

Preparatory work

We recommend you’ve completed:

The following are also helpful but not essential:

Computer programming experience using Python or a similar language may also be beneficial.

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
  • 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 digital camera or scanner to record images of your work (recommended, but not essential)

Computing requirements

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 Ventura 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.

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.


You can find the assessment details for this module in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying SXPS288 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

Remote experiments in physics and space (SXPS288) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2026.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Student Reviews

See what other students thought.