UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy


Introduction to Astronomy - Short Courses

These part-time evening courses, offered by UCL Dept of Physics & Astronomy have been created for people from all backgrounds interested in expanding their knowledge of the mysteries of the Universe.

The content of Introduction to Astronomy is divided into two courses intended to be taken sequentially:

  1. Introduction to Astronomy I, which includes the following topics: Foundations of Astronomy, Techniques in Astronomy, Solar System, the Sun and Stars. This course is offered from October 2023.
  2. Introduction to Astronomy II will include the following topics: Interstellar medium, extra solar planets, alien life, Galaxies and Cosmology. This course will be offered from October 2024 and the corresponding details will be posted here in the summer 2024.

You will be taught at UCL lecture theatres by our expert academic staff and gain hands-on experience during practical sessions at the University College London Observatory.

Entry Requirements:

There are no formal entry requirements for this course. However, it is important to have a basic knowledge of physics and mathematics. For more information please see our section below. Applicants must have a minimum age of 18 and an interest in astronomy, whatever your qualifications or educational background.

How to Enrol

Enrol in the Introduction to Astronomy I course through the UCL online store. The enrolment deadline to start this October is September 22nd 2023

Enrol Here

Basic Concepts of Physics and Mathematics

Mathematics is an important part of scientific research. Engaging in this course requires only a basic knowledge of arithmetics, algebra and trigonometry. Nothing complicated or beyond secondary school or A-level stage.

Applicants should read and become familiar with the following notes, which provide more details:

Likewise, there are a few basic concepts in physics to be applied during the course. Most of them are found in the Universe textbook

More specific notes on physics and atoms are found in the following file (still work in progress, but worth looking at now):

Course Overview
  • Suitable to everyone interested in astronomy, school teachers and keen amateur astronomers.
  • This is a part-time evening course taught over 12 weeks. Teaching takes place on Tuesdays from 6:00pm – 9:00pm. Practical sessions take place every three weeks on Wednesday evenings from 6:30pm – 9:30pm.
  • This course is taught by UCL Physics & Astronomy - Ranked 4th in the UK (Times Higher Education Rankings by subject 2022: Physical Sciences) you will be taught by lecturers who are experts in a wide range of physics and astronomy related fields.
  • You will undertake practical work at the UCL Observatory (UCLO), one of the best-equipped astronomical facilities for student training and research in the UK, and benefit from our close association with the Royal Astronomical Society.
Term Dates

Term 1: 3rd October 2023 – 19th December 2023 (every Tuesday)
UCLO practical sessions: 4th October 2023 – 13th December 2023 (Wednesdays)
Final Test (Optional): 23rd January 2024 / 30th January 2024. Accompanied by revision sessions on the 9th & 16th January 2024.
Award ceremony: On Tuesday 6th February 2024 a social gathering will be held for staff and students to award Certificates of Completion and celebrate the conclusion of the course.

Course Structure

Lecture sessions

Lectures, revision sessions and optional tests will be provided by UCL Dept of Physics & Astronomy on our Bloomsbury Campus. They will be held on Tuesdays from 6pm – 9pm with breaks for refreshments during sessions.

Foundations and techniques in Astronomy:  A historical overview of astronomy, providing an introduction to the night sky, stars, galaxies and cosmology, including the techniques that have been used for centuries, up to the modern giant telescopes, radio telescopes, space observatories and gravitational wave detectors. The necessary knowledge of maths plus some basic physics and chemistry will be covered at this stage in order to prepare students adequately for the rest of the course.

The solar system: Basic geography, interior structures, surface features and atmospheres of the terrestrial planets. Plate tectonics, volcanism, seismology and radiometric dating on the Earth. Impact cratering, polar regions, and origin of the Moon. Interiors, atmospheres and rings of the giant planets. Basic geography and surface features of the satellites of the giant planets. Properties of Pluto and other dwarf planets. Asteroids, meteorites, comets, Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud. Origin of the solar system.

The Sun, stars and introduction to galaxies: The Sun; its nuclear energy source, structure, environment and activity cycle; principal observable layers; photosphere, chromosphere, corona. Measurements of the properties of stars, including magnitudes. Luminosity, effective temperature and stellar classification, H-R diagram. Outline of stellar evolution with reference to the H-R diagram. The white dwarf, neutron star and black hole end-states of stars. Brief introduction to galaxies, formation, evolution and classification.

Required reading:  UNIVERSE by Freedman, Geller and Kaufmann (any of the last 3 editions). Please ensure you have a copy of this textbook before beginning the programme. You will not be required to bring this textbook to lecture sessions.

Practical sessions

Students will attend the practical sessions at the University College London Observatory (UCLO) in groups. Each student will have four sessions, attending at three-weekly intervals. Practical sessions run on Wednesday evenings from 6:30pm-9:30pm.

For clear nights, the syllabus includes the use of telescopes, the use of astronomical software, the operation of CCD cameras, observations of the Moon, planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies by direct viewing and by colour imaging with the Radcliffe 24-inch/18-inch double refractor and the two 14-inch robotic telescopes. Cloudy nights are dedicated to laboratory exercises covering topics such as planetary surfaces, pulsars, stellar spectra, Hubble red shift of galaxy clusters, interstellar matter, galaxy classification, the moons of Jupiter and others.

Final tests and revision sessions

This course is not accredited, however course attendees may sit two optional tests, which will be held on the 23rd January 2024 / 30th January 2024, in order to receive a certificate of completion.  The tests will be accompanied by revision sessions on the 9th & 16th of January 2024.

University College London Observatory

The University College London Observatory (UCLO) is located in Mill Hill, North-West London. The Observatory can conveniently be reached by Thameslink trains from central London.

The Observatory is in the process of commissioning an 80cm reflecting telescope, one of the largest in the UK. It is currently equipped with the following telescopes: the Radcliffe 24/18-inch and Fry 8-inch refracting telescopes and two 14-inch Celestron robotic reflecting telescopes. The telescopes have a full range of CCD cameras with a variety of broad- and narrow-band photometric filters. In addition there are spectroscopic facilities. 

Testimonials from previous students

The course allowed me to build on my passion and knowledge for astronomy and provided a social environment to meet a thoroughly diverse group of people who also shared that passion. The lecturers were highly knowledgeable and keen to share that knowledge and enthusiasm. Lectures were stimulating and were pitched at a level that allowed the fundamentals to be grasped quickly whilst introducing new concepts. As an added bonus, even after completing the course some years ago, we still meet regularly at UCL for post- graduate sessions, renewing old acquaintances and building new ones.(Hilary M.)

I really enjoyed the course. It covered aspects of astronomy that I really wanted to learn but would not have had the opportunity to study elsewhere because I did not have relevant scientific qualifications. The lectures were inspiring and interesting and all of the lecturers were very approachable and explained complex ideas very clearly in a way that I could understand. It was really useful to be able to study in the evenings to fit in with work commitments. I felt as though the course gave me a lot of confidence in my own abilities and enabled me to consider going on to further study and enrol onto a degree course, which is not something I had previously considered. It was also great to be learning with others with similar interests and I am still in contact with many of them today. (Louise A.).

I did the UCL course shortly after I had retired and the two years of weekly lectures and practical observing at the observatory was truly one of the most exciting things I have ever done. The course had a level of detail to professional standards and the lectures were given by scientists who were working at the leading edge of their fields, so you really felt at the “coalface” so to speak! Completion of the courses opens up a lifelong journey in understanding the exciting discoveries being made in Astronomy and the possibility of Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. I thoroughly recommend it. (Jim M.).

I have to say this was an amazing course, not only did it build and expand on my knowledge of our Universe but I have also made lifelong friends. The visits to the observatory in Mill Hill were excellent and the course work where you replicate the calculations of the past geniuses, such as the age of the Universe, are very satisfying, we truly realise we 'sit on the shoulder of giants'. For anyone with a slight interest in astronomy and our Universe and the big burning questions about our place in the Universe, I can't recommend this course highly enough. (Bal C.).

Doing this course was a fantastic couple of years of my life.  It was a great mix of fascinating lectures, engaging practical sessions at Mill Hill and stimulating company.  I’m immensely grateful to all the lecturers, who gave me an insight into their subjects - from stellar physics and telescopes to exoplanets and cosmology - with such skill and enthusiasm.  I’d felt that I hadn’t really ‘got’ maths and physics at school, but the course was such a revelation that I’m now doing a physics degree! (Jenny M.).