“ Location: Distance Learning / University: Liverpool John Moore's University / Course: Astronomy „
Astronomy is a wonderful, fascinating hobby. Owning a telescope allows the user to see astronomical sights that others can only view via pictures or TV. Looking through the lens, you can SEE the surface of Mars and Jupiter's red spot. Galaxies so far away that the light you see started its journey before human life evolved can be glimpsed as a glowing ball of light through the eyepiece.
Despite the wonder of the hobby, many telescope owners, after a while, reach a point where they want more than to just randomly look through their scope. They want a more structured approach to their observing. When I hit this point, I searched around for a distance learning course that would help me develop as an amateur astronomer.
'The Universe Through A Small Telescope' is run by the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and is designed to challenge telescope owners and help them develop their observing skills and techniques; performing disciplined observations and drawing conclusions from those observations.
The course also leads to a qualification: A Certificate of Professional Development in Astronomy. This qualification is worth 12 credit points towards a university degree should you wish to take your hobby further.
The course lasts around four months and has two start dates, December and June. Night owls should choose the June start (dark skies start at 23:00 then), whilst those who don't mind the cold should choose the December start, where you can be out making your observations straight after tea.
The course is supplied on CD, and is a mixture of astronomy theory and practical observations. The first module covers telescope techniques and the celestial coordinates system. This is something that not every telescope user learns, but which is extremely useful in understanding how the stars 'move' across the sky.
Other sections include deep sky and lunar observations as well as examining variable stars (although stars look unchanging, many of them change their brightness due to various reasons, over short to long periods of time).
Many people may wonder how we know, for example, how far away the moon is or how we know that the nearest star is four light years away. This knowledge has been painstakingly gained, by talented observers over the last few hundred years.
The observations in this course take the student on a journey of discovery, following in the footsteps of great scientists such as Newton and Galileo. The most fascinating topic for me was measuring the height of a mountain on the moon! Imagine, sitting in your backyard making some observations, then doing some calculations, and working out the height of a mountain 200,000 miles away. For me it was quite a fascinating night's observing!
Each module is sent to the university for marking. There is plenty of time to do this (after all, the course is very weather dependant: three weeks of constant cloud means that nothing can be done during that time). It can be quite uplifting, receiving notification that your module was awarded 9 or 10 out of 10, from a university lecturer no less!
Those who are artistically challenged should know that this course does involve making sketches of what has been seen. I'm terrible at art, but had little problem in drawing star clusters and galaxies: after all, they're just patterns of dots or smudges. It is really easy to do this and does focus the mind on what's been looked at, allowing more detail to be teased out by the mind's eye.
The final module requires the student to prepare a two page 'popular article'. This is selected from a wide range of topics so there should be something for everyone to get their teeth into. I found this part of the course relatively easy, and with access to the internet, no one should be short of information to help them.
The course costs a very reasonable £130 and for this you get the material on CD, access to a tutor, and a support forum. As there is some maths involved, students should have GCSE maths or equivalent. In total, students will spend around 120 hours completing the course. Details can be found at:
I found the course to be extremely enjoyable. Rather than being random, my observations now had a purpose, and I discovered so much about astronomy and using my telescope from completing the modules.
Amateur astronomers finding themselves in need of a challenge should take a look at 'The Universe Through A Small Telescope'. Being able to learn at home, about your hobby, gives a whole new dimension to owning a telescope. This would also be an unusual but hopefully well received present to a friend or relative telescope owner.