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Astrophysical Technologies, Planetary Science with Professional Skills - PHY00028I

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  • Department: Physics
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Phil Lightfoot
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Related modules

Co-requisite modules

  • None

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22 to Summer Term 2021-22

Module aims

The astrophysical technologies used to study emissions from celestial objects across the spectrum spanning from high energy gammas to radio waves will be considered. The module will introduce radiation physics, and instruments and techniques used in radio astronomy. It will explore some of the most energetic objects and astrophysical sites in the Universe. A wide range of detection and imaging systems will be considered, as will the space-based satellite platforms on which most are based. However, the module will also demonstrate how astronomical features can be probed using observatories located on Earth, either using large arrays of radio receivers, or the weak interaction in the case of neutrino observatories. The techniques and instruments used to make these observations are described.

The planetary science module will cover the fundamentals of planet formation and evolution, as well as exploring the physical processes and wide variety of environments within our own solar system. Key concepts in exo-planetary science will be examined, with a focus on detection methods determining planetary characteristics.

Finally, the module will examine the conditions that allowed life to develop on Earth and identify other bodies in our own Solar System that may host the right conditions for primitive life, as well as techniques used to assess the capability of exoplanets to sustain life. The probability that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe will be discussed within the context of the scientific method.

Transferable skills have been embedded within the undergraduate programmes to align departmental teaching with the Employability Strategy and York Pedagogy, and to create a distinctive York graduate. But it is vital that students have an opportunity to reflect on the intellectual, practical and transferable skills gained during their degree, in order to appreciate how the education provided develops their employability.

It is important that students can evidence skills; for example the ability to work independently and/or in groups, tackle open-ended problems and communicate the outcomes succinctly in unfamiliar environments. It is also important that students appreciate how these skills and experiences developed both via participation with the programme and through engagement with other aspects of university life, and can map these to essential qualities required by potential employers and postgraduate programmes.

This module provides practical training and includes a team activity related to a programme specific open-ended physics problem, and two individual recorded presentations on a programme specific physics topic. It also prompts students to reflect on skills gained during their degree and to articulate how those skills have developed their employability by mapping these to potential career sectors. This is facilitated by workshops, the Physics Careers Event and the completion of a related pro-forma. Work culminates in the production of a CV and an application letter reflecting the skills and experiences which support application to a job sector or postgraduate programme.

Module learning outcomes

Subject content

  • describe the emission processes which give rise to high energy electromagnetic radiation
  • describe and apply the physical principles underlying radio detectors
  • discuss the imaging and interferometry techniques used by radio astronomers
  • compare and contrast the physical processes by which X-ray and gamma-ray emission occur and describe the astrophysical sites where this arises
  • appreciate why satellite observations are required for X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy and be able to describe some typical satellite parameters
  • compare the various types of detectors used to detect radio waves, X-ray, gamma-ray radiation and explain how their operations vary
  • apply equations to determine the attenuation of high energy radiation through a shield and the likelihood of its interaction with a target
  • formulate designs for detector systems based on flux and energy of incident radiation
  • evaluate the physical basis resulting in the “solar neutrino problem” and how it was ultimately resolved
  • explain how neutrinos interact with matter and describe how this can be used to detect neutrinos through the weak interaction
  • identify some of the astrophysical sites where neutrino emission can occur
  • Describe and compare current theories of solar system formation and evolution, from molecular cloud through to its current incarnation, including planetary migration.
  • Use classical mechanics to derive the motion of planets, satellites and tidal effects, setting limits on the locations of stable orbits.
  • Differentiate between and account for the wide variety of objects and planetary environments within the solar system, with focus on planetary interiors, atmospheres and magnetospheres.
  • Investigate and apply methods of exoplanet detection. Make distinctions between the various types of exoplanet. Use knowledge of detection methods to predict sensitivity to different populations and calculate planetary characteristics.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the chemical, physical, atmospheric and biological conditions which existed such that life developed on Earth. Evaluate the basic astronomical and astrophysical principles and techniques used in the search for bio-signatures on worlds in our own solar system and beyond.
  • Apply scientific rigour to discussions pertaining to life beyond Earth. Critically analyse the Drake equation and its astronomical context.
  • Contextualise current research and scientific debates within planetary, exoplanetary and astrobiological sciences.
  • investigate either independently and/or in groups, the solution to an open-ended astrophysics problem and communicate the outcomes succinctly
  • summarise a specific topic from the astrophysics programme such that material produced is complete, consistent and supported by theory

Academic and graduate skills

  • absorb, organise and synthesise lots of information from many different fields
  • synthesise information to write coherent essays on general questions in astrobiology, supporting arguments with relevant information/facts/ideas
  • encourage critical skills when applied to open-ended questions
  • appreciate the differences between fact, theory, and speculation of various degrees
  • construct coherent arguments and discussions of broad questions in astrobiology supported by facts, theories, and speculation
  • communicate information and ideas to an appropriate standard and in such a way as to enable understanding and engagement by academic and non-specialist audiences
  • select and adapt the appropriate style to convey accurate clear information, attitudes and ideas in an appropriate written format in a way which enables use and facilitates auditing
  • identify, select, synthesise and evaluate information/data to enable the achievement of a desired outcome making effective use of multiple databases and sources of information
  • reflect on and critically evaluate strengths, limitations, personal and contextual factors which have an impact on performance and establish ways to improve
  • demonstrate the independent learning ability needed to continue to develop at an advanced level
  • create and implement a plans to achieve key career objectives
  • identify ways to make professional use of others to achieve aims and desired outcomes
  • respond appropriately to peer expectations

Module content


Origin of EM emission: black body emission, thermal Bremsstralung, synchrotron radiation, Rayleigh-Jeans Law

Sources of emission: supernova types, pulsar, X-ray burster, long and short gamma ray burster, quasar, AGN, IR backgrounds, dust

Problems associated with Earth based observation: solar and atmospheric windows

Interactions of photons with matter: Photoelectric effect, Compton effect, pair production, the mass absorption and mass attenuation coefficients, inelastic and elastic scattering, Rayleigh scattering

  • Detector types used to detect X-rays and gamma rays: scintillation detectors, influence of detector size and target material on energy spectrum produced, semiconductor detectors (MPPCs and CCDs), microchannel plate
  • Detector types used to detect radio waves: radio fundamentals, the radio dish, antenna temperature, the Jansky, dipoles, heterodyne detectors
  • Interferometry: basics, Fourier transforms and the u,v – plane, very long baseline interferometry and aperture synthesis
  • Microwave astronomy: bolometers

Imaging systems: spark chamber, Compton telescope grazing incidence telescope coded mask aperture collimator

Observatories: Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Space Telescope, Fermi Gamma ray Space Telescope, INTEGRAL, Square Kilometre Array, Planck Observatory, Herschel Observatory

  • Neutrino sources and detection methods: stellar neutrinos, supernova neutrinos, neutrino scattering, solar neutrino problem, Super-Kamiokande, SNO and how it solved the solar neutrino problem, charged current interaction, neutral current interaction, electron elastic scattering

An introduction to Planetary Science

An overview of planetary and exoplanetary science. The key concepts of orbital mechanics and the structure of our own solar system will frame a discussion of current exoplanet research with results from Gaia and Kepler and a brief overview of future missions such as JWST and TESS. Module learning objectives and outcomes will be outlined.

How to build a solar system

How did our solar system form? Why are the planets where they are, and have they always been in these positions? We will look at observational evidence from exoplanetary systems and compare to current theory.

Environments within the Solar System I: Terrestrial Planets

An overview of our own solar system, focussing on the terrestrial planets and asteroid belt. We will look at key characteristics such as planetary interiors, atmospheres and magnetospheres. Planetary processes such as volcanism and impacts will be explored; as well as the greenhouse effect.

Environments within the Solar System II: Gas Giants and further afield.

Continuing to look at our own solar system, with a focus on gas giants, dwarf planets and the wide variety of other environments such as comets, KBO’s and the Oort cloud.

A living planet

What is life, and what are its origins? This lecture will look at the physical processes necessary for life to have arisen on Earth. The concept of habitable zones will be explored, as well as thermodynamics, biochemistry, evolution and geological and atmospheric science. The faint young Sun paradox, and the evolution of the atmosphere will also be explored.

A living universe

Concepts explored in the previous lecture will be expanded and applied to the search for life elsewhere. We will explore the potential for life in the solar system and the wider universe, how would it form and how might we find it? Mars and the Jovian moons will be looked at in depth, as well as the idea of galactic habitable zones and spectroscopic techniques used to find exoplanet biomarkers.

Atmospheric (and other) biomarkers, and remote detection by spectroscopy, Viking missions and their results.

Exoplanets I

An overview of detection techniques, with focus on Doppler and transit. Properties of the planets, selection effects and biases in the methods will be discussed.

Exoplanets II

What are the categories of exoplanet, and how do we determine their physical characteristics? Concepts such as binarity, tidal locking and exo-moons will be explored, as well as current and future work from JWST and TESS.

Are we alone?

A brief look at the Drake equation, the Fermi Paradox and the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Our place in the wider universe will be discussed and the physical limitations of interstellar travel will be explored. The lecture will close with a summary of the module and the opportunity to cover previous topics in more detail.

Skills Content (+training workshops and feedback sessions)

individual recorded 10 minute presentation on programme specific topic in physics with peer-assessment through VLE

repeat of above building on feedback; presentations assessed by staff

team activity: assessment centre exercise (formative)

team activity: student groups prepare 10 minute presentation to cohort, reviewing a specific job sector, company profiles, essential skills required and how they map to the undergraduate programme, typical application process/timing

team activity: ‘thinking like a physicist’ answering an open-ended complex problem on a programme specific theme culminating in production of a group solution document

completion of an individual pro-forma (linked to attendance at Physics Careers Event) which asks a student to list potential careers sectors, identify key competencies, differentiate between occupations based on those aspects which are considered most relevant by the student

production of a CV aligned to a potential sector

production of a draft application letter aligned to a potential sector


Task Length % of module mark
Application letter
N/A 5
N/A 10
CV and pro-forma
N/A 5
Peer review of presentation 1
N/A 4
Planetary Science Assignment
N/A 25
Team exercise written report
N/A 5
Online Exam
Astrophysical Technologies
N/A 40
Oral presentation/seminar/exam
Presentation 2
N/A 6

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Application letter
N/A 5
N/A 10
CV and pro-forma
N/A 5
Peer review of presentation 1
N/A 4
Planetary Science Assignment
N/A 25
Team exercise written report
N/A 5
Online Exam
Astrophysical Technologies
N/A 40
Oral presentation/seminar/exam
Presentation 2
N/A 6

Module feedback

Our policy on how you receive feedback for formative and summative purposes is contained in our Department Handbook.

Indicative reading

Kitchin C R: “Astrophysical Techniques” 5th edition, Taylor & Francis, 2008

Longair M S: “High energy astrophysics (Volumes I and II)” 2nd edition, CUP, 1992 and 1994

Charles P A & Seward F D: “Exploring the X-ray Universe” 1st edition 1995, 2nd 2010, CUP

Murthy P V R & Wolfendale A W: “Gamma ray astronomy” 2nd edition, Cambridge Astrophysical Series 22, 1993

Burke B. & Graham-Smith F.: An introduction to radio astronomy, CUP, 2009

Carroll & Ostlie: An introduction to Modern Astrophysics, Pearson, 2013

Zeilik M & Gregory S.A.: Astronomy and astrophysics, Brooks-Cole, 1997

Planetary Science key texts:

Lissauer, de Pater: “Fundamental Planetary Science”, Cambridge University Press, 2013

Kay, Palen, Blementhal: “21st Century Astronomy” 5th edition, W.W. Norton and Co., 2016

Planetary science recommended:

Karttunen, Kröger, Oja, Poutanen, Donner: “Fundamental Astronomy” 6th edition, Springer, 2017

Rothery, Gilmour, Sephton, "An Introduction to Astrobiology" 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2011

C.A.Scharf, “Extrasolar Planets & Astrobiology”, University Science Books, 2009Warburton N: The basics of essay writing (Taylor & Francis/Routledge) 2006

Levin P: Write great essays! 2nd edition (McGraw Hill) 2009


The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.