Explore the stars in our galaxy and gain an insight to the universe and its structure.

Looking up at the sky on a clear and starry night is an awesome experience. But how do stars work and how is the universe structured?

Most of us know that the observable universe is vast but less well known is that it has a structure and an almost endless variety. This course will describe the hierarchical nature of the universe starting with stars and working up through star clusters, galaxies, clusters of galaxies and superclusters.

Along the way the variety and complexity will be described. Black holes, the big bang and other fascinating astronomical topics will also be explored.

Course outline

This course will cover the following topics:

An introduction to the different types of stars, including supernovae, variable stars and eclipsing binaries. The course will investigate important stars such as the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and discuss the quirky and politically incorrect classification WOBAFGKMRNS.

Many stars are members of groups known as clusters. These are one notch below galaxies in the hierarchy of the observable universe and contain from a few to a million or more stars. Some famous star clusters will be described and why astronomers study clusters will be outlined.

Nebulae such as the Horsehead and Crab nebulae, are large expanses of gas and the birth place of most stars. We will investigate how stars are formed from nebulae.

Galaxies of which there are billions come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from irregular or dwarf galaxies to large, regular elliptical and spiral galaxies. The different types will be described and how astronomers measure the distance to galaxies will be outlined.

Most galaxies are members of clusters of galaxies. For example, our galaxy along with about fifty others is a member of the Local Group. The galaxies in a cluster can interact in strange and complicated ways. These interactions, including the one between our galaxy and Andromeda will be looked at.

Just as galaxies form clusters, clusters of galaxies form clusters called superclusters. The Local Group is a member of the Virgo supercluster and is predicted to be swallowed by Virgo in a few billion years.

Hyperclusters are clusters of superclusters. None have been found. However, recently alignments of galaxies called walls have been; three of these will be discussed.

Black holes, filaments, the big bang, dark matter and the mysterious Great Attractor.

Learning outcomes

On completion of the course learners will be able to:

  • understand the hierarchical nature of the Universe
  • demonstrate an appreciation of the power of gravity
  • understand how stars work
  • understand how astronomers measure the distance to stars and galaxies.

Who should attend?

This course is designed for people who have a general interest in astronomy. The course includes time to cover background material and ideas from general science. Supplementary material will be available for students who want more background.