Your feedback is important to us
Please take two minutes at the end of your visit to help us improve our information and services.
Skip to content The Open University
    An undergraduate course in Science.

Practical science: physics and astronomy

On this page

The activities in this practical science course 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 course fee. The course ends with an exciting team project, where you will work with students from other courses in this Practical science series.

Modules at Level 2 assume that you are suitably prepared for study at this level. If you want to take a single module to satisfy your career development needs or pursue particular interests, you don’t need to start at Level 1 but you do need to have adequately prepared yourself for OU study in some other way. Check with our Student Registration & Enquiry Service to make sure that you are sufficiently prepared.

Register for the course

Start End Fee Register
- - -

No current presentation - see Future availability

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

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 course you will develop these skills that are essential for practical work.

The course 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 course 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 course 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 course.

Some tasks within the course will require scheduled interactions either with equipment or with your tutor group. Therefore this course 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 course satisfactorily.

Team project

At the end of the course you will join a multidisciplinary team to complete a short project on contemporary practical science. You’ll work collaboratively with students from other courses 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 courses in this series

You must study one of the courses 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 course 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 course 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.

Residential school

This course 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 course 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.


This is a Level 2 course 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 course 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 Level 2 courses.

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

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

Outside the UK

This course is open to students based outside the UK.


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.

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. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability

Some aspects of this course 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 course 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. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • residential school arrangements, including the support and equipment available
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

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 course 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 course. It includes online activities – you can access using a web browser – and some course software provided on disk.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer running Windows since 2007 you should have no problems completing the computer-based activities.
  • A netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device is not suitable for this course – check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you have an Apple Mac or Linux computer – please note that you can only use it for this course 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 the details of the support we provide.

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 course can be found in the facts box above.

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

Professional recognition

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

Future availability

The details given here are for the course that started in February 2014 for the last time. A replacement module is planned for October 2014. 

Students also studied

Students who studied this course also studied at some time:

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code SXP288
Credits 30
OU Level 2
SCQF level 9
FHEQ level 5
Course work includes:
5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
4 Interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs)
End-of-module assessment
Includes residential school

Your questions

Try our frequently asked questions.

Come and meet us at an event near you.

Or contact an adviser by Email or call +44(0) 845 300 60 90 +44(0) 845 366 60 35

Employers' questions

Contact Corporate Enquiries
Visit our website for employers or Email us

Get a prospectus

Download or