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AstroTech: The Science and Technology behind Astronomical Discovery

How astronomy really works - an overview of the technology that astronomers use to collect and measure light from the universe, and how it is used in practice to make scientific discoveries.


Course at a Glance

About the Course

"How do they know that?"

Modern astronomy has made some astonishing discoveries - how stars burn and how black holes form; galaxies from the edge of the universe and killer rocks right next door; where the elements come from and how the expanding universe is accelerating. But how do we know all that? The truth is that astronomy would be impossible without technology, and every advance in astronomy is really an advance in technology. But the technology by itself is not enough. We have to apply it critically with a knowledge of physics to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

Each week we will cover a different aspect of Astronomical technology, matching each piece of technology to a highlight science result.   We will explain how the technology works, how it has allowed us to collect astronomical data, and, with some basic physics, how we the interpret the data to make scientific discoveries.

Course Syllabus

Week-1 - Science and Technology : a marriage made in Heaven

  •   Our Knowledge of the Universe
  •   Revolutions in Astronomy
  •   Why Astronomy is hard
  •   The Horse and the Cart


Week-2 - Telescopes : Picturing the Universe

  •   Example story : we are stardust
  •   The technology : how telescopes work
  •   Putting it together : we are stardust part II 
  •   Big Telescopes of the future


Week-3 - Space : Getting above it all

  •   Example story : hunting for black holes
  •   The technology : rockets, spacecraft, and orbits
  •   Putting it together : hunting for black holes part II
  •   The future : can space missions get cheaper?


Week-4 - Detectors : Catching the light from the stars

  •   Example story : galaxies from the dawn of time
  •   The technology : CCDs and infra-red arrays
  •   Putting it together : galaxies from the dawn of time part II
  •   Is there another revolution in detector technology?


Week-5 - Computers : Crunching the data

  •   Example story : killer rocks
  •   The technology : computers, databases and the internet
  •   Putting it together : killer rocks part II
  •   The future : hitting the buffers?


Week-6 - Spectrographs : Taking the fingerprints of the stars

  •   Example story : the accelerating universe and dark energy
  •   The technology : how spectrographs work
  •   Putting it together : dark energy part II
  •   The perfect spectrograph?

Recommended Background

No background required. Some knowledge of physics will help you to get more out of the course, but its not essential.

Course Format

The class will consist of video lectures, weekly quizzes, and discussion forums. Each week there will be five videos, totalling approximately 40 minutes. They will be in a regular pattern - a short introduction, an example science story, an explanation of the key technology area, a look at how the technology is used in practice, and finally a look at what the future may hold. 


  • Will I get a certificate after completing this class?

    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.

  • Do I earn University of Edinburgh credits upon completion of this class?

    No. The Statement of Accomplishment is not part of a formal qualification from the University. However, it may be useful to demonstrate prior learning and interest in your subject to a higher education institution or potential employer.

  • What resources will I need for this class?

    No resources needed.

  • What are the learning outcomes of this course and why should I take it?

    You will learn how we can collect and interpret huge data sets to make scientific discoveries and better understand the universe.

Course image: European Southern Observatory (ESO) - ALMA