Course Info Astronomical Techniques

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This course aims to provide an understanding of the tools and techniques used by astronomers to study the Universe, with an emphasis on ground-based optical observations. You will also learn the practical skills necessary to work with your own observations. Topics covered include: astronomical telescopes, astronomical instruments and electronic detectors.

It builds on Introduction to Astrophysics (PHY104) and the topics covered in the first-year astronomy lab (PHY115 & PHY116). The module is designed to prepare students choosing to do observing projects or the La Palma field trip in their third year (PHY319), fourth year projects (PHY480), and those intending to spend a year abroad on La Palma (PHY473, PHY474).

As part of this module, all students must do an observing project using the University's 16-inch telescope. On successful completion of this course you should be able to:

  • Assess the relative merits of different telescope and mounting designs, and different observing sites.
  • Understand the effect of optical aberrations and the Earth's atmosphere on astronomical observations, and how they can be corrected.
  • Understand the operating principles of imagers, photometers and spectrographs.
  • Describe the operating principles of modern optical detectors.
  • Follow the procedures required to reduce and calibrate astronomical data.
  • Understand noise sources and predict the signal-to-noise ratio of an astronomical observation.


20 lectures in total in weeks 1-5 and 8-12.
Lecture slots:

  • Tues, 09:00-09:50, Hicks LT04
  • Fri, 09:00-09:50, Hicks LT09
Note there will be no friday lecture in week 6, as I am away at a conference. Week 7 is a reading week.


There are no day-time labs for this course. However, there is the observing project. In addition, three of the lectures are hands-on practicals. These will take place in the astro lab, Hicks E36, and will occur in the following lecture slots

  • L03, Tues 7th October, 09:00-09:50
  • L05, Tues 14th October, 09:00-09:50
  • L13, Tues 25th November, 09:00-09:50

Problems Classes

Weeks 2-6 and 8-11 in the astro lab (Hicks E36). There are two problems class sessions:

  • Thursdays, 11:00-11:50
  • Fridays, 12:00-12:50
You need only attend one problems class each week - you will be told which one you are assigned to (Thursday or Friday) at the start of the semester.

If you need help with any aspects of this course, please feel free to email me at this address:

If you would prefer to see me in person, my office is E47 in the Hicks Building.

The on-line course notes provide all of the information you need for this course. If you wish to read around, however, I would recommend the following texts (roughly in decreasing order of importance):

To Measure the Sky by Frederick R. Chromey (CUP)
ISBN: 9780521747684.
The book is currently in its first edition and costs around 37 pounds in paperback. There are 3 such texts in the Information Commons. This book, which came out quite recently, is probably the closest text you will find to the content of my course. It covers a great deal of the material I cover, and at a very similar level. Strongly recommended.

Astronomy: Principles and Practice by A. E. Roy and D. Clarke (Institute of Physics Publishing)
ISBN: 9780750309172.
This book is currently in its fourth edition and you should be able to find a new paperback copy for around 35 pounds. The Information Commons holds 6 copies of this book. Beware of older editions, as they don't cover modern detectors and instrumentation. This is an excellent book which will come in useful throughout your degree. It covers a much wider range of topics than my course, but the parts on telescopes are covered at just the right level of detail.

Astronomical Measurement: A Concise Guide by Andy Lawrence (Springer-Verlag)
ISBN: 9783642398353.
This book is in it's first edition and costs around 63 pounds in hardback, or 50 pounds for a digital copy. There is 1 text in the Astro Lab. This book covers much of the material in PHY217, in more detail than covered here. It also looks at observational techniques in other wavelengths to the optical.

Electronic Imaging in Astronomy by Ian S. McLean (Springer-Verlag)
ISBN: 9783540765820.
This book is currently in its second edition and costs around 63 pounds in both hardback and paperback. There are 3 such texts in the Information Commons. As its name implies, this book covers the detector aspects of my course, although it also has much useful information on instrumentation. The book tends to go into more detail than is required for PHY217, but it is written in a very readable style and I strongly recommend it.

Astrophysical Techniques by C. R. Kitchin (Taylor & Francis Inc)
ISBN: 9781420082432.
This is currently in its fifth edition, and is available in hardback for around 35 pounds. The Information Commons holds 3 copies of this book. This book covers a much wider range of material than my course, but unfortunately does not go into enough depth on some of the subjects that I require you to know. It may, however, be of use as a reference text.