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Unit of study_

PHYS3937: Plasma and Astrophysics (Advanced)

Semester 2, 2020 [Normal day] - Camperdown/Darlington, Sydney

Looking at the sky it is easy to forget our Sun and the stars are continuous giant nuclear explosions, or that nebulas are vast fields of ionized gases, all obeying the same laws of physics as anything else in the universe. Astrophysics gives us great insight in the larger structures of the universe, and plasma physics is key to understanding matter in space, but also in fusion reactors or for advanced material processing. This selective unit in the physics major will provide an introduction to astrophysics and plasma physics, complemented with experimental labs. You will study three key concepts in astrophysics: the physics of radiation processes, stellar evolution, and binary stars. You will gain understanding of the physics of fundamental phenomena in plasmas and apply basic methods of theoretical and experimental plasma physics. The advanced stream has more open-ended experimental physics projects: You will learn and apply new experimental and data analysis techniques by designing and carrying out in-depth experimental investigations on selected topics in physics, with expert tutoring. In completing this unit you will gain understanding of the foundations of modern physics and develop skills in experimental physics, measurement, and data analysis.

Unit details and rules

Unit code PHYS3937
Academic unit Physics Academic Operations
Credit points 6
PHYS3037 or PHYS3042 or PHYS3043 or PHYS3044 or PHYS3942 or PHYS3943 or PHYS3944
[An average mark of 70 or above in (PHYS2011 or PHYS2911 or PHYS2921) AND (PHYS2012 or PHYS2912 or PHYS2922)]
PHYS3035 OR PHYS3935 OR PHYS3040 OR PHYS3940 OR PHYS3941
Assumed knowledge

(MATH2021 OR MATH2921 OR MATH2061 OR MATH2961 OR MATH2067)

Available to study abroad and exchange students


Teaching staff

Coordinator Catherine Stampfl,
Type Description Weight Due Length
Final exam (Open book) Type C final exam Final exam
Type C
45% Formal exam period 2 hours
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO4 LO5 LO6 LO7
Small continuous assessment Astrophysics computer labs
Computer laboratory participation
5% Multiple weeks 1 hour
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO6 LO5 LO4 LO2
Assignment Plasma physics online quizzes
Online quiz
5% Multiple weeks Not timed
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6 LO7
Assignment Astrophysics assignment
Written assessment
5% Week 06 5 pages
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO7 LO6 LO5 LO2
Assignment Problem assignment
Written assessment
10% Week 09 10 pages
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO7 LO6 LO5 LO2
Assignment Experimental physics report and peer review
Written assessment
10% Week 12 4 pages
Outcomes assessed: LO4 LO7 LO5
Assignment Plasma physics assignment
Written assessment
5% Week 12 5 pages
Outcomes assessed: LO1 LO7 LO6 LO5 LO2
Skills-based evaluation Experimental physics logbook
Practical assessment
15% Weekly Variable
Outcomes assessed: LO3 LO7 LO6 LO5 LO4
Type C final exam = Type C final exam ?

Assessment summary

  • Assignments: There are three coursework assignments in this unit, one per module, and one larger problem assignment using aspects
    of both modules. Students are encouraged to start early on the problem assignment, as they will be able to solve aspects from it as early as it is released.
  • Plasma physics online quizzes: There will be compulsory online lectures and a small quiz before each lecture starting from week 7; material covered in lectures will assume the reading has been done and will be part lecture, part tutorial. Each lecture's pre-reading quizzes will need to be completed by beginning of the lecture.

  • Astrophysics computer labs: Students only need to attend one lab session. Each lab consists of three checkpoints, all checkpoints must be handed in and marked off by the following lab session.

  • Experimental physics lab books: Every student will carry out two experiments. At least one experiment has to be from the advanced experiment pool.

  • Experimental physics report and peer review: Students will be required to write up one report on one of the experiments completed, based on the material already in their logbook. Reports are to be written in the style of a scientific paper in a specific journal.

  • Final exam: The final exam will have questions covering all coursework aspects of this course (astrophysics and plasma physics), and will be entirely paper-based. This is a closed book exam.

Detailed information for each assessment can be found on Canvas.

Assessment criteria

The University awards common result grades, set out in the Coursework Policy 2014 (Schedule 1).

As a general guide, a high distinction indicates work of an exceptional standard, a distinction a very high standard, a credit a good standard, and a pass an acceptable standard.

For more information see

For more information see guide to grades.

Late submission

In accordance with University policy, these penalties apply when written work is submitted after 11:59pm on the due date:

  • Deduction of 5% of the maximum mark for each calendar day after the due date.
  • After ten calendar days late, a mark of zero will be awarded.

Academic integrity

The Current Student website  provides information on academic integrity and the resources available to all students. The University expects students and staff to act ethically and honestly and will treat all allegations of academic integrity breaches seriously.  

We use similarity detection software to detect potential instances of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breach. If such matches indicate evidence of plagiarism or other forms of academic integrity breaches, your teacher is required to report your work for further investigation.

You may only use artificial intelligence and writing assistance tools in assessment tasks if you are permitted to by your unit coordinator, and if you do use them, you must also acknowledge this in your work, either in a footnote or an acknowledgement section.

Studiosity is permitted for postgraduate units unless otherwise indicated by the unit coordinator. The use of this service must be acknowledged in your submission.

Simple extensions

If you encounter a problem submitting your work on time, you may be able to apply for an extension of five calendar days through a simple extension.  The application process will be different depending on the type of assessment and extensions cannot be granted for some assessment types like exams.

Special consideration

If exceptional circumstances mean you can’t complete an assessment, you need consideration for a longer period of time, or if you have essential commitments which impact your performance in an assessment, you may be eligible for special consideration or special arrangements.

Special consideration applications will not be affected by a simple extension application.

Using AI responsibly

Co-created with students, AI in Education includes lots of helpful examples of how students use generative AI tools to support their learning. It explains how generative AI works, the different tools available and how to use them responsibly and productively.

WK Topic Learning activity Learning outcomes
Week 01 1. Astrophysics: astronomical units and conventions; 2. Introduction to radiation; 3. Radiation processes: intensity and brightness, emission, and absorption; 4. Optical depth, sources of radiation, blackbody radiation Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4
Week 02 1. Astrophysics: atomic processes and the formation of spectral lines; 2. Stellar structure: equations for stellar structure and timescales; 3. The virial theorem; 4. The main sequence: nuclear processes, H and He burning Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 03 1. Astrophysics: stellar evolution 1: low-mass stars; 2. Stellar evolution 2: massive stars and convection Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Astrophysics computer lab 1: radiative transfer and the Saha and Boltzmann equations Computer laboratory (1 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 04 1. Astrophysics: supernovae: core collapse, SN1987A; 2. Stellar remnants: white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Astrophysics computer lab 2: stellar structure Computer laboratory (1 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 05 1. Astrophysics: binary stars: interacting binaries and gravity in a rotating reference frame; 2. Accretion energy: mass transfer and the Eddington rate Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Astrophysics computer lab 3: stellar evolution Computer laboratory (1 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 06 Astrophysics: binary evolution Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Astrophysics computer lab 4: Roche potentials Computer laboratory (1 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 07 1. Plasma physics: introduction; 2. Definition of a plasma; 3. Concept of temperature; 4. Debye shielding; 5. Applications of plasma physics; 6. Single-particle motions; 7. Uniform E and B fields; 8. Non-uniform E and B fields Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 08 1. Plasma physics: adiabatic invariants, and plasmas as fluids; 2. The fluid equation of motion; 3. Fluid drifts perpendicular to B; 4. Fluid drifts parallel to B Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 09 1. Plasma physics: waves in plasmas; 2. Electron plasma waves; 3. Ion acoustic waves; 4. Dispersion relations; 5. Plasma waves parallel and perpendicular to magnetic fields Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 10 1. Plasma physics: plasma waves; 2. EM waves with B=0; 3. Electrostatic waves with B=0; 4. EM waves with finite B; 5. Propagation parallel and perpendicular to B; 6. Resonances and cutoffs; 7. Gaseous electronics; 8. Mean free path; 9. Ionization; 10. Recombination; 11. Diffusion; 12. Paschen’s law Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 11 1. Plasma physics: the sheath; 2. The child-langmuir law; 3. Bohm speed; 4. Plasma potential; 5. Langmuir probes; 6. Magnetohydrodynamics; 7. Plasma pressure; 8. Plasma stability Lecture (3 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5
Week 12 1. Plasma physics: plasma distribution function; . Kinetic theory and the Vlasov equation; Landau damping; The Boltzmann equation; Revision Lecture and tutorial (4 hr) LO1 LO2 LO5 LO6
Experimental physics lab Science laboratory (4 hr) LO3 LO4 LO5

Study commitment

Typically, there is a minimum expectation of 1.5-2 hours of student effort per week per credit point for units of study offered over a full semester. For a 6 credit point unit, this equates to roughly 120-150 hours of student effort in total.

Learning outcomes are what students know, understand and are able to do on completion of a unit of study. They are aligned with the University's graduate qualities and are assessed as part of the curriculum.

At the completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  • LO1. demonstrate an understanding of key concepts in two areas of physics: astrophysics and plasma physics
  • LO2. apply these concepts to develop models, and to solve qualitative and quantitative problems in scientific contexts, using appropriate mathematical and computing techniques as necessary
  • LO3. design experiments to measure specific effects
  • LO4. compare and critique experimental approaches
  • LO5. communicate scientific information appropriately, through written work
  • LO6. analyse a physical problem in plasma physics and astrophysics develop a formalism appropriate for solving it
  • LO7. demonstrate a sense of responsibility, ethical behaviour, and independence as a learner and as a scientist.

Graduate qualities

The graduate qualities are the qualities and skills that all University of Sydney graduates must demonstrate on successful completion of an award course. As a future Sydney graduate, the set of qualities have been designed to equip you for the contemporary world.

GQ1 Depth of disciplinary expertise

Deep disciplinary expertise is the ability to integrate and rigorously apply knowledge, understanding and skills of a recognised discipline defined by scholarly activity, as well as familiarity with evolving practice of the discipline.

GQ2 Critical thinking and problem solving

Critical thinking and problem solving are the questioning of ideas, evidence and assumptions in order to propose and evaluate hypotheses or alternative arguments before formulating a conclusion or a solution to an identified problem.

GQ3 Oral and written communication

Effective communication, in both oral and written form, is the clear exchange of meaning in a manner that is appropriate to audience and context.

GQ4 Information and digital literacy

Information and digital literacy is the ability to locate, interpret, evaluate, manage, adapt, integrate, create and convey information using appropriate resources, tools and strategies.

GQ5 Inventiveness

Generating novel ideas and solutions.

GQ6 Cultural competence

Cultural Competence is the ability to actively, ethically, respectfully, and successfully engage across and between cultures. In the Australian context, this includes and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge systems, and a mature understanding of contemporary issues.

GQ7 Interdisciplinary effectiveness

Interdisciplinary effectiveness is the integration and synthesis of multiple viewpoints and practices, working effectively across disciplinary boundaries.

GQ8 Integrated professional, ethical, and personal identity

An integrated professional, ethical and personal identity is understanding the interaction between one’s personal and professional selves in an ethical context.

GQ9 Influence

Engaging others in a process, idea or vision.

Outcome map

Learning outcomes Graduate qualities

This section outlines changes made to this unit following staff and student reviews.

No changes have been made since this unit was last offered.

Work, health and safety

We are governed by the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 and Codes of Practice. Penalties for non-compliance have increased. Everyone has a responsibility for health and safety at work. The University’s Work Health and Safety policy explains the responsibilities and expectations of workers and others, and the procedures for managing WHS risks associated with University activities.


The University reserves the right to amend units of study or no longer offer certain units, including where there are low enrolment numbers.

To help you understand common terms that we use at the University, we offer an online glossary.