Astronomy

Astronomy is offered at the College as one of a number of optional GCSEs. It is a two year course and is fully timetabled in the Remove and Hundred with five 55 minute lessons per fortnight. The GCSE was offered at the College from 1997, and numbers have grown over time, so that now between 20 and 40 pupils (evenly split between girls and boys) are taking the course at any one time. The College has the largest telescope in full time UK school use (it is the oldest telescope in the world to be computer controlled), and Marlborough has become one of the leading examination centres for the GCSE.

Departmental Aims

Originally set up to stretch and challenge top set scientists, we now aim to build on the enthusiasm and interest shown by many pupils as they enter the College and it is now open to pupils of all ability. The course itself is demanding, and a real interest in the subject is needed as well as some mathematical capability.

We aim to offer a unique opportunity to study perhaps the oldest and yet most rapidly changing subject, which is in a golden era of media interest. All College pupils are given a tour of the Observatory in House Groups during their first winter at the College, and this enables them to see the facilities available and hence make a more informed decision as to whether to start the course once in the Remove.

The subject is unlike any of the other Sciences, having greatest similarity to Biology (you take what you see and analyse it. It is not laboratory based but observationally based, and 2 observational projects have to be completed over the 2 year course. The Astronomy Specification is very broad and covers the whole remit of astronomy from the Sun, planets and our Solar System to stars, galaxies and black holes, cosmology and Dark Energy.

Astronomy as a subject is very wide and, indeed, we touch on historical, religious and ethical issues. The Specification is newly updated for 2017 and will be examined for award of grades 9 to 1 for the first time in 2019. It includes impact threats to Earth, exosolar planet discoveries and possibilities for life elsewhere. The course is backed up with a dedicated course text book with links to numerous websites.

The observations, which consist of one unaided and one aided project, may be made in a pupil’s own time – at home, or on holiday, but the availability of assistance and superb instruments here at the College’s Observatory make this the most popular location.

The GCSE consists of 2 exam papers, each of 100 minutes duration. The 16 topics covered during the course are divided equally between the 2 papers with the first paper covering ‘Unaided Astronomy’, and the second ‘Telescopic Astronomy’. Since 1997 over 265 of our pupils have completed a GCSE in Astronomy, and 94% of these have gained A*or A grades. The course is ideal for those with a real interest in discovery and the night sky, and who are prepared to tackle a significant challenge and, most of all, to get cold and attend the Dome whenever a clear night and other commitments allow.

The Observatory has its own fully functional website (www.blackettobservatory.org) which is used to summon pupils up to observing at the Dome, provide web links, and a weekly ‘What’s Up’ section to keep pace with events.  A full diary of outreach events also exists for the local group Friends of the Marlborough telescope, which was set up in 2003 and now numbers some 120 local households.

The Department has in the past run Astronomy Expeditions to the European Northern Observatory on La Palma.

The Department has two permanent beaks, Mr Barclay (Head of Astronomy)) and Dr Roberts, both of whom have either Astronomy or Cosmology degrees. Mr Barclay is a Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Academic Visitor in Oxford University’s Astrophysics department, Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, and a member of the International Astronomical Union; he is also chair of examiners at Edexcel for GCSE Astronomy, and a co-author of our new Astronomy Specification.