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MPhys Physics with Astrophysics / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

Course unit details:
Radio Astronomy

Unit code PHYS40591
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 4
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Department of Physics & Astronomy
Available as a free choice unit? No


Radio Astronomy


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Mathematics of Waves and Fields PHYS20171 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Wave Optics PHYS20312 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Cosmology PHYS30392 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Electromagnetic Radiation PHYS30141 Pre-Requisite Compulsory
Electrodynamics (M) PHYS30441 Pre-Requisite Compulsory


1. To provide an overview of phenomena which can be studied with radio techniques including a range of non-astronomical applications.
2. To introduce the techniques of radio astronomy, from antennas to radio receivers, emphasising their strengths and limitations and the applicability of these techniques to a range of non-astronomical applications.

Learning outcomes

This course unit detail provides the framework for delivery in 20/21 and may be subject to change due to any additional Covid-19 impact.  Please see Blackboard / course unit related emails for any further updates

On completion successful students will be able to:

1. Relate radio-waveband observations of astrophysical objects to the mechanism that generated the emission.

2. Explain how radio waves are affected as they travel through the interstellar medium and the Earth’s stmosphere.

3. Calculate key performance indicators of a radio telescope such as its sensitivity and angular resolution.

4. Assess the optimum choice of receiver system for a desired radio astronomical measurement.

5. Describe the operation and advantages of radio interferometers in imaging applications.



1. Fundamentals
The radio universe: “hidden” objects (pulsars, double radio sources, OH/IR stars etc) and a new light on the familiar (e.g. HII regions, supernova remnants, spiral galaxies).
Brightness, flux density and brightness temperature, emission mechanisms, thermal and synchrotron continuum radiation, spectral lines, simple radiative transfer, antenna characteristics.

2.   Antenna concepts
The antenna as an aperture; Rayleigh distance; far-field Fourier transform relations and differences for the near field; effective area, aperture efficiency; beam solid angles and antenna gain; antenna temperature; Ruze formula; Wiener-Kinchine theorem, convolution and antenna smoothing; parabolic antennas and basics of quasi-optics.

3.   Receiver concepts
Johnson noise; Nyquist theorem and noise temperature, band-limited noise, minimum detectable signal, noise accounting in receivers; heterodyne systems and sidebands; polarization sensitive receivers; gain instabilities; Dicke-switched and correlation receivers.
Spectral line receiver concept: detectability of spectral lines, filter bank, autocorrelation and Fourier transform receiver principles.
Interferometric receiver concepts; spatial and temporal coherence; adding, phase switching and multiplying types; resolution; complex visibilities; aperture synthesis and imaging of various targets.

4.   Case Studies
Application of radio astronomy techniques to specific astrophysical targets e.g. discrete source surveys; the Cosmic Microwave Background; mm-wave imaging of Earth from space; mm-wave imaging of terrestrial targets for all-weather surveillance and security.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 33%
Written exam 67%

Feedback methods

Feedback will be available on students’ individual written solutions to examples sheets, which will be marked, and model answers will be issued.

Recommended reading

Recommended texts
Rohlfs, K. and Wilson, T.L. Tools of Radio Astronomy, 3rd ed (Springer-Verlag 2000)
Further texts
Burke, B. and Graham-Smith, F. Introduction to Radio Astronomy, 2nd ed (CUP 2002)
Kraus, J. Radio Astronomy, (McGraw-Hill 1986)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 1.5
Lectures 24
Independent study hours
Independent study 74.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Keith Grainge Unit coordinator
Anna Scaife Unit coordinator

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