The Distance Learning in Astronomy Experience – Brian Finney

I have always had a passing interest in Astronomy and Space; about 15 months ago I decided to take it further and attended my first LAS meeting. As a part of this new venture I needed to move up the learning curve
quickly to take advantage of and maintain my new interest.

Looking around for the best way to move up the learning curve suggested that a Distance Learning course may be the answer. There is a plethora of courses that covers a wide range of astronomical subjects from three local academic organisations, John Moores University AstroPhysics Research Institute, University of Central Lancashire, Jodrell Bank Observatory and nationally from the Open University.

My thoughts have not gone to the more conventional route of personal telescope use and purchase – in fact I have come to the conclusion that I will not be purchasing a telescope, much preferring a computer with internet access followed by a warm bed rather than the vagaries and limitations of observing on cold clear nights. LAS’s Leighton Observatory at Pex Hill serves my very limited need to observe in person. This naturally led me to the ‘Universe through the Large Telescope’ course run by John Moores University Astrophysics Research Institute (JMU ARI).

The JMU ARI ‘Universe through the Large Telescope’ course is rated as a 240 hours course over about 6 months – approximately 10 hours a week, although I finished in a shorter time as the course became addictive and I easily and unintentionally put in more than the planned 10 hours a week. The cost is £240 for EU residents which I assume all readers will be. Other courses are 120 hours and cost £120. All course notes etc are provided on CD and internet access is necessary.

The outputs from the ‘Universe through the Large Telescope’ course are five projects or assignments to be submitted to deadlines; four projects being chosen from a list of seven and a compulsory project ‘The Liverpool
Telescope’. The projects are very well structured and you are lead through them, with tutor support by email or telephone, if you need it. I have to say that at first sight the project titles are overwhelming but it is surprising how quickly you become comfortable with them once you have started the first project and you realise that help and a route through is readily available in the notes associated with project and from the tutor.

Project or assignment titles include Distance to the Hyades Cluster, Orbital properties of Extra Solar Planets, Observations of Objects at Multi-wavelengths, Supernova 1987A and Cephid variables.

JMU ARI’s others courses are:

  • Exploring the Universe – an Introduction to Astronomy
    (starts October and April of each year) 24 Credit course
  • Galaxies
    (starts February of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • The Universe Through a Small Telescope
    (starts December and June of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • Astronomy for Teaching
    (can be taken from September to February) 12 Credit Course
  • Planetary Atmospheres
    (starts July of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • Modern Cosmology and the Distant Universe
    (starts May of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • The Universe Through A Large Telescope
    (starts July of each year) 24 Credit Course
  • The Science of Science Fiction
    (starts March of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • Planetary Geology
    (starts November of each year) 12 Credit Course
  • Stars
    (starts September of each year) 12 Credit Course

A few final thoughts, the course fulfilled its and my objectives in that it quickly moved me up the learning curve; and more than that it has increased my enthusiasm and given me enjoyment and satisfaction whilst exercising the grey matter. Therefore, money and time well spent in my opinion.

You may want to try a course that interests you.