Astronomy 110 Laboratory: Course Outline

Spring 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 nighttime field trip to a dark site to view the Milky Way and faint objects. Enrollment will be limited to one section of 25 students.

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


The syllabus will change from semester to semester, depending on the visibility of astronomical objects. Listed here are topics and exercises which could take place in Spring 2003.

  1. The Sky
    1. Orientation: compass points, rising and setting of astronomical objects [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    2. Constellations: recognizing landmarks in the sky [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    3. Lunar Motion and Phases: relation between position and phase of the Moon [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    4. Paths of the Planets: observations of Jupiter and Saturn reveal retrograde motion [outdoor, individual, quantitative].
    5. A Lunar Occultation: watch the Moon cover a star to estimate the Moon's position and the star's angular diameter.

  2. Dynamics
    1. Falling bodies: recreate Galileo's key experiments and establish link to orbital motion [indoor, individual, quantitative].
    2. Shape of Lunar Orbit: measure the ~13% change in the Moon's apparent diameter from perigee to apogee [outdoor, collaborative, quantitative].
    3. Jupiter's Satellites: orbital dynamics on a smaller scale; test Kepler's laws, observe Laplace resonance [outdoor/online, individual, quantitative].

  3. Telescopes
    1. Basic Telescope Optics: explain inverted images, predict and measure magnification [indoor, individual, quantitative].
    2. Using astronomical telescopes: finding objects, tracking, choice of magnification [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    3. Astronomical objects: study appearance of planets, stars, clusters, nebulae [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    4. Advantages of aperture: count stars visible after stopping down to different apertures; examine resolution of close binary stars [outdoor, collaborative, quantitative].

  4. Cratering
    1. Measure the diameter and depth of lunar craters [indoor, individual, quantitative].
    2. Craters in the lab: study how speed, angle of impact, and properties of target influence crater shape and depth [indoor, individual, qualitative].
    3. Stratigraphy demonstration: combine cratering with resurfacing to illustrate how crater density depends on age of surface [indoor, demonstration, qualitative].
    4. Relative ages of lunar surfaces: count craters on large-scale photographs to determine crater densities [indoor, individual, quantitative].

  5. Distances
    1. Parallax in the Lab: use cross-staff to estimate distances by triangulation [indoor, individual, qualitative].
    2. Distance to the Moon: coordinated observation from two points yields estimate of lunar distance [outdoor/online, collaborative, quantitative].
    3. Inverse-Square Law: verify relationship between distance and apparent brightness [indoor/outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    4. Light curve of a Cepheid variable star: naked-eye observations of Zeta Gem can yield its period, and hence its luminosity [outdoor, collaborative, quantitative].

  6. Spectra
    1. Use of simple spectroscope: describe light sources in terms of spectral characteristics [indoor, individual, qualitative].
    2. Solar spectrum: observe absorption lines in Sun's spectrum [outdoor, individual, qualitative].
    3. Classification of stellar spectra: compare spectra to obtain ordering by temperature [indoor, individual, quantitative].

It's unrealistic 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 duration of the entire course; this strategy allows the students to become familiar with both Winter and Spring constellations. Repeated observations are also necessary to study the shape of the Moon's orbit (2.b), monitor the Moons of Jupiter (2.c), and measure the light curve of Zeta Gem (5.d).

Joshua E. Barnes (

Last modified: March 11, 2003