Astronomy 110 Laboratory: Student Guide

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


Our motivation in developing this class came from our students. Over the years, many Astronomy 110 students have said they wanted to study and observe the night sky. This astronomy laboratory was developed to give students some practical knowledge of the stars and some real, `hands-on' observing experience. We assume that you are truly motivated and interested, and that you are willing to invest some time in learning the stars and the use of telescopes. These are not terribly difficult subjects, and anyone can learn something about them. Nonetheless, you will need commitment to do well in this class. Although we have asked you to buy a couple of books to serve as guides to the night sky, this subject can't be learned from a book or lectures. The point of this course is to see for yourself.

When studying astronomy in this way, some patience is necessary. For example, the weather may be bad when we go out to observe. Even when circumstances seem good, the things we are trying to see may be hard to find, indistinct, or just plain invisible; the best course of action may be to keep looking, look at something else, find something else to look at, wait until conditions improve, or try again another night. Finally, observing the universe makes new demands on your visual abilities; you will have to learn new ways to see, and that will take time.

I can help you in this process, but I can't work miracles. If you get frustrated, you will have to find your own motivation to keep on looking - because if you don't look, you won't see anything! How you find your motivation is your business. Your motives are part of your personality, and I can't change your basic personality any more than I can tell you what foods to eat, what music to enjoy, or what kind of friends to make. (That's definitely not my job, and I'm very happy that it's not!) If you understand that your motivation is your responsibility, I welcome you to this class and to the study of astronomy.


Working in pairs or groups is quite common in science labs, and this lab is no exception. Teamwork can be quite effective; it's often possible to figure things out faster if you work with another person, and some experiments are much easier with two pairs of hands. We have designed many of these projects for teams of two to four people.

In a real team, everybody is actively involved and contributes to the group effort. To insure that everybody is involved, we require you to use your own words in writing your observing log and lab reports. This is very important - expressing yourself with your own words will help you to understand the material. It's pretty obvious when people copy from each other, and we will not give credit if people turn in identical work! On the other hand, we will give you credit if you use your own words - because that shows that you understand what you have been doing.


As already emphasized, the point of this course is to observe as much as we can. We will try to observe every night the weather seems reasonably good, and meet indoors only when the weather rules out any kind of observation.

Unfortunately, the UH campus is not a good place for observations; there are too many lights, and Manoa is often cloudy. Therefore, we will be making field trips to observe. Most of our observing session will be in Kapiolani park. As an observing site, Kapiolani park is not ideal, but it is better than campus and it's easy to get there. We will also arrange one or two trips to really dark sites where we can observe fainter stars.


Astronomy is a very safe activity. Unlike some science labs, we have little need for hazardous materials or equipment (you might burn your fingers on a hot light-bulb, but only if you grab it at the wrong time). We will be working outdoors at night, but we are a large group and there is safety in numbers. Still, people sometimes feel nervous being outside at night in a fairly dark place; if you feel threatened, please let us know.

There is one safety rule which must be emphasized, even though it may not be all that relevant to this class: NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH ANY TELESCOPE OR BINOCULARS unless you are using a professionally-designed solar filter! It's important that the filter cover the entire aperture of the telescope or binoculars and that it's securely attached so it can never fall off by accident. The telescopes we use in this class can take all the sunlight falling on an eight-inch circle and concentrate it into a spot half an inch in diameter. That concentrated light is about 250 times brighter than normal sunlight; it can permanently destroy your vision in much less time than it takes you to blink your eye.

For legal reasons, we do require you to sign a release form before the first field trip. This is the same form used for field trips in other classes at UH.


We will be observing outside at night for several hours at a time, and you should plan to dress appropriately. It can get a little cool in the evenings, and clothes which were comfortable in mid-afternoon will not keep you warm enough at night. Wear loose-fitting clothes you can move around in easily, and bring a sweater or jacket. We may have to wait out the occasional shower, so bring a poncho or umbrella.

Low blood sugar makes it harder to see faint stars; you may want to bring a snack along when we are observing.

Nicotine impairs your night vision, and you should avoid smoking before or during the class (or at any other time, if you want to live to see the next return of Halley's comet). If you must light up, wait until we take a break, and move well away from the telescopes and from anyone who might not like the smell of cigarette smoke.


We will provide all the key equipment for this class, including telescopes, binoculars, and other optical aids. Detailed instructions will be given in class; this is just a summary.

  1. 8-inch Dobsonian Reflecting Telescopes.

    These are robust and simple to operate, yet quite powerful when used properly. We have one scope for every four students in this lab.

  2. 10 × 50 Binoculars.

    Binoculars are useful for star-gazing; they help to bridge the gap between naked-eye and telescopic views. We have one pair of binoculars for every student. Students can borrow binoculars for the duration of the term; see the binocular loan agreement form for details.

  3. Refracting Telescope Kits.

    These simple kits will help you understand the operating principles of larger telescopes. We have one kit for every student.

  4. Spectroscope Kits.

    A spectroscope is a device which separates light by color (technically, by the wave-length of the photons). We have one kit for every student.

  5. Cross-staff.

    A cross-staff is a simple device for measuring angles - for example, the angle between two stars. We have one for every student.

You will need a few items for this class. Most of them can be found at the UH bookstore; the rest can be purchased at your local shopping center.

  1. A notebook to use as an observing log. A `computation notebook' is preferable since the pages are larger; however, if you've already purchased a regular lab notebook, that's OK too.
  2. A pad of unlined paper for sketching; pages should be 8.5×11 or larger.
  3. A ring binder for handouts and other course material.
  4. A clip-board.
  5. Colored pens, colored pencils, sharpener, eraser, etc.
  6. A ruler marked in centimeters. Should be at least 30 cm long.
  7. A calculator - ideally, one which can handle scientific notation for very large and very small numbers. Advanced math functions will not be necessary.
  8. A straw beach-mat (convenient when viewing constellations directly overhead).
  9. An eye-patch (optional, but useful if you have trouble closing one eye at a time).


Each week we will give you one or more handouts which you should read before next week's lab. These will be distributed during the lab meetings; you can also get them from the class web site. Because we can't predict the weather a week in advance, we will often provide two handouts: one for an observing project, and another for an indoor lab project. If we wind up observing, we will generally recycle the indoor project for the following week. If we have to work indoors, we may or may not be able to recycle the observing project; some observations can only be made at specific times.


As part of this class, you will keep a log of your observations in your notebook. Doing so helps you remember what you have seen. Your log does not have to be very elaborate, but it should be reasonably accurate and complete.

To insure accuracy and avoid the temptation to alter previous entries, you should use a pen, not a pencil, when logging your observations. Never erase what you have written; instead, cross it out with a single line. Neatness is not so important as long as your writing is legible and the order in which you have written things down is clear.

Begin your record of each observing session on a fresh page. Start by noting the place, date, time, and weather conditions on the upper right of the page. Also note if the Moon is up, since moonlight has a big influence on the visibility of faint stars. Make a note if conditions change while you are observing.

Write a brief entry in your log for each observation you make. Include the subject of your observation, the equipment you used, and a few descriptive words to help remember what you saw. If you were using a telescope, note which eyepieces you used. A small sketch of your observations can be included right next to the log entry; if you make a more detailed drawing in your sketch pad, make a note of it in your observing log.


Drawing astronomical objects is a very good way to improve your observational skills. When you make a drawing you concentrate on what you are seeing, and as a result you see things you would otherwise have overlooked, and remember more of what you have seen. Artistic ability can help, but the point is not to produce beautiful pictures, so don't worry if your sketches are not artistically satisfying. The main point is to make a serious effort to represent what you see on paper. If you try, you may be surprised at how much you can actually show in a drawing.

Rough sketches can be made in your observing log, but there are several reasons to use a separate sketch book for more detailed drawings. First, the lined paper in your log book may confuse your eye; blank paper simplifies the process of comparing your work to the real thing. Second, you can freely use the entire page, instead of cramping your drawing into a corner of the log book. Third, you can use pencils as well as pens and markers when drawing in your sketch pad; feel free to erase as needed, since the goal is the final drawing, not the stages you went through in producing it.

On each drawing in your sketch book, you should note the name of the object, the date and time, and any equipment used. Don't forget to list each drawing in your observing log.


A second component of your work is writing up the observations and experiments you have performed. This allows you summarize your work and draw conclusions from your observations. Detailed instructions will be provided for each report, but in general we expect you to follow the traditional format for lab reports, which includes an introductory section, a description of the equipment used, a summary of your results, and a discussion of your conclusions.


The final exam will take place in PSB 110 on Tuesday, May 13, 2003 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. Nobody can be admitted to the exam once anyone has left, so please be on time.

You must take the final to pass the course. Special arrangements can be made for students participating in organized sports; please ask your coach to contact me before the last day of class.


Unlike some classes, this class is not graded on a curve. A curve predetermines the percentage of students who will get an A, a B, a C, or a D; this seems unfair, and tends to destroy incentive. You will get written comments and letter grades (including plus and minus grades) on observations recorded in your log and on each report you turn in. We will provide as much feedback as possible so you have some idea how you are doing in the class.

Basically, your observing log, your lab reports, and your score on the final exam will each count for 30% to 35% of your final grade.


As a university student, you may be going through a time of rapid change. Perhaps you are living away from home for the first time. You have new freedoms - the freedom to decide your own hours, chose your associates, set your own priorities. With those freedoms come some new responsibilities.

Attendance is one of your key responsibilities. We will take attendance each time the class meets. You can miss one lab without penalty; if you miss two or more without a serious reason, you may fail the class.

Your responsibilities do not end when you come to class. I don't expect you to pay full attention every moment, but if your attention wanders then you must make an effort to focus again. I can't direct the focus of your mind - you are the only person who can do that.

You are also responsible for handling the equipment with care. Telescopes and accessories are expensive, and we can't afford many replacements or repairs. Accidents can be forgiven, but carelessness is another matter; anyone who deliberately damages equipment will be required to withdraw from the course.

We will fail anyone who comes to class drunk or intoxicated.

It is your responsibility to know and follow the rules for the labs, reports, and final exam. These rules are designed to make sure that everyone gets full credit for their work. Someone who tries to gain credit without doing the work, or tries to prevent other people from getting credit for the work they have done, is cheating. Any action which gives someone an unfair advantage cheats everyone else. Treat other students as you'd like them to treat you.

Joshua E. Barnes (

Last modified: January 21, 2003