OpenLearn has released a new course, Astronomy with an online telescope, giving participants access to state-of-the-art facilities in Tenerife, a complete guide to the basics of astronomical imaging and the opportunity to contribute to unique variable star research.
The power of astronomy
The science of astronomy is an incredibly diverse topic with branches ranging from atomic physics, the fusion process powering stars, right the way up to the cosmology of the Big Bang Theory which gives us an understanding of where everything came from. It also provides an unprecedented vehicle for teaching a huge number of topics in the areas of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering and electronics.
However, in my humble opinion, the forever iconic image and work horse of astronomy is the optical telescope. From its inspirational beginnings, being pointed to the sky for the first time in the 1600’s by Galileo Galilei, to the goliaths of modern-day astronomy, such as the Gran Telescopio Canerias with its 10.4 metre mirror, all allow us to get clearer and more detailed views of objects further and further out into the Universe in a manner the human brain is most comfortable with – the visual spectrum.
A 21st century telescope
Learning how to use a telescope can be an extremely rewarding experience and having a look through one is an act everyone should have the opportunity to experience. But the fact remains that large well manufactured telescopes are expensive and essential to getting views of faint celestial objects. Another challenge can be the bane of modern society ‘light pollution’. For those living in even the smallest towns and villages the effects of poorly designed and positioned street lights and building illuminations drown out the subtle, ethereal light coming to us from stars, planets and galaxies.
To overcome these issues and engage many more people The Open University is opening our COAST telescope for everyone to view and enjoy the pristine night skies visible from the island of Tenerife. The Completely Autonomous Service Telescope (COAST) resides in a clamshell style dome at the Observatorio del Teide 2,400 meters above sea level on the active Teide volcano. “Of course, we’d all like a trip to Tenerife but as the name implies this telescope is operated by a computer and undertakes the vast majority of its observations without human intervention. However, through my work at the OU I have had the pleasure of visiting COAST a number of times and it really is a pristine observing site.” says course co-author and presenter Alan Cayless. The telescope itself has a mirror diameter of 14 inches (35 cm) allowing it to collect over 5000 times lighter than your eye. It also has the advantage of a sensitive digital camera which collects and stores the light received by the telescope, allowing stunning images of the night sky to be saved for posterity.
A new free learning experience
Whether you are familiar with using a telescope or not, operating a remote telescope, and specifically the COAST telescope, is likely to be a new experience for you so a Badged Course, Astronomy with an online telescope. The course begins with the factors involved in planning observations and why we use telescopes before requesting your first image (of a Messier object) from COAST.
The course then moves on to explore stars in more detail considering how they produce light, how stars are grouped by type and how they evolve. Finally, this leads to looking at stars that vary in brightness, taking an observation of one such ‘variable star’, and adding your results to those achieved by other course participants to study that star’s brightness fluctuations in greater detail.
A unique and ambitious endeavour
The course has taken over a year to design and create with Dr Alan Cayless and Dr Jo Jarvis as the lead authors and presenters. However, the ground-breaking nature of the course has only been realised with the help of many others across the Open University and beyond. This is the first time a badged course has incorporated such a large and ambitious practical element and the first time that a collaborative citizen science element has been included in a course. “We knew from the start this was going to be an ambitious course to develop but we felt that the practical elements were essential to give participants the best possible experience and knowledge of how to use the COAST telescope. We sincerely hope we have done the course justice and we look forward to hearing back from participants.” says course co-author and presenter Jo Jarvis.
In the spirit of this practical and collaborative course we invite you to share experiences of exploring astronomy and the images you have produced using COAST.