Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)


Department: Physics


Type Open Level 1 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • A Level Physics and A Level OR AS-Level Mathematics.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To introduce students to the language and physical concepts of astronomy.
  • To require students to work with simple algebraic equations and basic calculus.
  • To provide students with a wide-ranging background in modern astronomy and astrophysics, together with familiarity with the night sky.
  • To take a detailed look at cosmology and the search for extra-solar planetary systems and life.
  • To give students the opportunity to view the night sky.


  • The syllabus contains:
  • The User’s Guide to the Night Sky: Introduction to the night sky, Naked eye astronomy, Motions in the sky, the Celestial sphere, Coordinate systems, the Ecliptic, the Seasons, Solar and sidereal days, Precession of the equinoxes, The Moon, Eclipses, The planets, Sidereal and synodic periods, Apparent motion of an inferior planet, Apparent motion of a superior planet, Further objects to observe with the naked-eye.
  • The Solar System: Early Solar System models, Distances in the Solar System, Kepler's laws and gravity, Terrestrial planets, Gas giants, Asteroids, Comets, Formation of our Solar System, Formation of the Earth-Moon system.
  • Sun, Stars and Stellar Evolution: The Stars − measuring the stars, stellar classification, how the stars shine. The Sun as a star. Making sense of the ‘zoo’ – stellar evolution, star clusters and ages. Stellar deaths – supernovae, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.
  • Astrobiology: What is Astrobiology? The formation of solar systems. Methods for the detection of extra-solar planets. Conditions for life: habitable zones. The prospects for finding extra-terrestrial life.
  • The Milky Way and Beyond: The Milky Way – the interstellar medium, mapping the Galaxy. The Milky Way’s companions. Galaxies – the Hubble sequence, spiral and elliptical galaxies, measuring extragalactic distances. Clusters and superclusters. Colliding galaxies. Active galaxies and quasars. Evidence for dark matter. The expansion of the Universe.
  • Cosmic History: The expanding Universe, the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation, dark matter and dark energy.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students will know the positions in the night sky of key objects and have a basic knowledge of celestial motions and phenomena.
  • They will be able to describe the basic structure and content of the Solar System.
  • They will know how the fundamental properties of the Sun and stars are measured.
  • They will be aware of the challenges surrounding the detection of extra-solar planets and of the physical requirements for extra-terrestrial life.
  • They will know the characteristics of our Galaxy and be able to compare and contrast its properties to other galaxies.
  • They will be familiar with the Big Bang theory of the creation and expansion of the Universe.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students will be able to apply the basic principles of physics and astronomy to the solution of a range of problems.
  • They will know how to produce a well-structured solution, with clearly-explained reasoning and appropriate presentation.
Key Skills:

    Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

    • Teaching will be by lectures with some optional evening observational classes. The lectures will provide the means to give a concise, focussed presentation of the subject matter of the module. The lectures will also be supported by recommended textbooks and, when appropriate, by distribution of written material, or by information and relevant links online.
    • Regular problem exercises will give students the chance to develop their theoretical understanding and problem solving abilities.
    • Students will be able to obtain further help in their studies by approaching their lecturers, either after lectures or at other mutually convenient times (the Department has a policy of encouraging such enquiries).
    • Student performance will be summatively assessed through tests and formatively assessed through problem exercises. The tests will provide the means for students to demonstrate their acquisition of subject knowledge and the development of their problem-solving skills. The problem exercises will provide opportunities for feedback, for students to gauge their progress, and for staff to monitor progress throughout the duration of the module.

    Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

    Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
    Lectures 38 2 per week 1 Hour 38
    Preparation and Reading 162
    Total 200

    Summative Assessment

    Component: Open-book tests Component Weighting: 50%
    Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
    Open-book tests 100% Yes
    Component: Online tests Component Weighting: 50%
    Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
    Online tests 100% Yes

    Formative Assessment:

    Problem exercises.

    Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University