Astronomy 110 Laboratory: Course Outline

Fall 2003 Astronomy 110L Tues. 7:00 - 10:00 pm


One evening meeting per week, involving a combination of laboratory work and field trips for astronomical viewing. There will be one daytime meeting to view the Sun, and one or more nighttime field trips to a dark site to view the Milky Way and faint objects. Enrollment will be limited to 25 students per section.

Flexibility is necessary in conducting this course. At any given time only some planets and other objects are visible. Moreover, observing may be impossible during bad weather; when it's cloudy, laboratory exercises will be substituted for astronomical viewing. From time to time, additional viewing sessions may be scheduled to take advantage of unique astronomical events such as eclipses, meteor showers, occultations, etc.


The syllabus changes from semester to semester, depending on the visibility of astronomical objects. Listed here are exercises which may be included in Fall 2003.

  1. The Sky
    1. Orientation: compass points, rising and setting of astronomical objects [outdoor].
    2. Constellations: recognizing landmarks in the sky [outdoor].
    3. Phases of the Moon: relation between position and phase of the Moon [outdoor].

  2. Telescopes
    1. A Simple Telescope: study formation of inverted images, predict and measure magnification [indoor].
    2. Using Astronomical Telescopes: finding objects, tracking, choice of magnification [outdoor].
    3. Advantages of Aperture: count stars visible after stopping down to different apertures; examine resolution of close binary stars [outdoor].

  3. Observations
    1. Viewing Mars: in Fall 2003, Mars comes very close to the Earth, providing an opportunity for detailed observations [outdoor].
    2. Viewing the Moon: small telescopes reveal an enormous amount of detail on the surface of the Moon [outdoor].
    3. A Lunar Occultation: watch the Moon cover a star to place limits on the star's angular diameter [outdoor].
    4. Deep Sky Objects: study appearance of double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies [outdoor].
    5. Light Curves of Variable Stars: naked-eye observations of Delta Cephei can yield its period, and hence its luminosity [outdoor].

  4. Dynamics
    1. Motions of Mars: observations reveal retrograde motion, due to our own motion about the Sun [outdoor].
    2. Shape of the Moon's Orbit: the ~13% change in the Moon's apparent diameter from perigee to apogee provides a test of Kepler's first law [outdoor].
    3. Falling Bodies: recreate Galileo's key experiments and establish link to orbital motion [indoor].

  5. Distances
    1. Parallax in the Lab: use cross-staff to estimate distances by triangulation [indoor].
    2. Distance to the Moon: coordinated observation from two points yields estimate of lunar distance [outdoor].
    3. Inverse-Square Law: verify relationship between distance and apparent brightness [indoor].

  6. Spectra
    1. Spectra in the Lab: each element has a unique ``fingerprint'' of spectral lines [indoor].
    2. Solar Spectrum: observe absorption lines in Sun's spectrum [outdoor].
    3. Viewing Stellar Spectra: the spectra of stars reveal stellar temperatures and compositions [outdoor].

It's not possible to give a detailed week-by-week schedule for this course. Instead, the idea is to have a range of activities prepared for each meeting; thus we can take advantage of clear weather, and work indoors when the weather is bad. Some topics can be completed in a week or two, but others entail observations spread over longer periods. For example, constellations (1.b) will be periodically revisited over the semester; this strategy allows the students to become familiar with Summer and Fall constellations. Repeated observations are also necessary to follow the motion of Mars (4.a), study the shape of the Moon's orbit (4.b), and measure the light curves of variable stars (5.d).

Joshua E. Barnes (

Last modified: October 13, 2003