Exploring the Universe (Online)


How old is the Universe? How unusual is the Solar System? How do we know what stars are made of? How will it all end? Oxford astronomers Chris Lintott (BBC’s Sky at Night) and Robert Simpson (zooniverse.org) provide an overview of the last 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution, and the future of the Universe, answering these questions and more. The course will take participants to the cutting-edge of astrophysics.

Listen to Professor Chris Lintott talking about the course:

Covering cutting-edge ideas, techniques and discoveries in astrophysics, they aim to tell the scientific stories behind the beautiful pictures produced by the world’s largest telescopes.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

Unit 1: The astronomical unit

  • Light years and parsecs
  • The celestial sphere
  • A tour of the Universe
  • Looking back in time
  • Data astronomy
  • The electromagnetic spectrum
  • Modern astronomy

Unit 2: The Big Bang

  • Why matter matters
  • An expanding universe
  • The formation of the elements
  • The cosmic microwave background

Unit 3: Leaving the dark ages

  • Dark matter
  • The first black holes
  • The first stars

Unit 4: Galaxies

  • Island universes
  • A zoo of galaxies
  • Mergers and galaxy formation
  • Black holes in galactic centres
  • Dark matter in galaxies

Unit 5: Star formation

  • The enormous scales of star formation
  • The main sequence and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram
  • A multi-wavelength sky
  • A tour across the night sky
  • The most massive stars

Unit 6: Extrasolar planets and planet formation

  • Scale of the Solar System
  • Moons
  • Discovery of planets around other starts
  • A huge variety of worlds
  • The current hunt for extrasolar planets
  • The Goldilocks zone
  • How do planets form?

Unit 7: Exploring the Solar System

  • A history of observation
  • The giant planets
  • The terrestrial planets
  • Exploring the moon
  • Other worlds
  • The Sun
  • The Heliopause

Unit 8: Astrobiology

  • Life on Earth
  • The Miller-Urey experiment
  • Panspermia
  • The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence
  • The Drake equation
  • Looking for life in our Solar System
  • Is water important for life?

Unit 9: The end of stars

  • The death of our sun
  • Size matters
  • Supernovae and the limits of fusion
  • Neutron stars and black holes

Unit 10: The fate of the Universe

  • Eternal expansion or Big crunch
  • Gravitational lensing
  • The Universe is flat
  • The accelerating Universe
  • Dark energy
  • Large-scale structures and cosmological models


We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


Dr Elizabeth Charlton

Elizabeth Charlton has a doctorate in physics specialising in astronomy and astrophysics with areas of interest that include the use of radio astronomy techniques to study magnetic effects in star formation regions and the use of planetaria in multidisciplinary education.  She continues her involvement in physics and astronomy education working with OUSSA and OUDCE teaching astronomy subjects.

Course aims

This course aims to provide an overview of the last 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution and the future of the Universe, covering cutting-edge ideas, techniques and discoveries in cosmology and astrophysics.

This course will enable participants to gain an understanding of the ideas underpinning modern cosmology and astrophysics, engage independently with the scientific literature on the topic and to discuss what is still unknown.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be expected to understand the evidence supporting current theories of cosmology, star and planet formation, together with their implications for our understanding of the Universe.

By the end of this course students will be expected to have gained the following skills:

  • Ability to critically assess astronomical ideas and theories and to be familiar with the current consensus view(s) in the scientific community.
  • Ability to independently search for relevant information to inspire and answer questions.
  • A familiarity with navigating and critiquing popular and technical material on the web.
  • Ability to discuss scientific ideas with their peers in a reasoned and well-argued fashion.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link: https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/about/english-language-requirements


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of  about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.