Astronomy 110 Laboratory: Course Outline

Fall 2011 Astronomy 110L Tue. 7:00 — 10:00 pm


One evening meeting per week, involving either field trips for astronomical viewing or indoor laboratory work. There will be an optional daytime meeting to view the Sun, and one or more nighttime trips to a dark site to view the Milky Way and faint objects. Enrollment is limited to 24 students per section.


The syllabus of this course must be adapted to circumstances. At any given time only some planets and other objects are visible. Moreover, observing may be impossible during bad weather; when it's cloudy, indoor exercises will be substituted for astronomical viewing. From time to time, optional viewing sessions outside of normal class times may be scheduled to take advantage of unique astronomical events such as eclipses, meteor showers, occultations, etc. Here are some exercises which may be included in Fall 2011.

  1. Observations
    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].
    4. Viewing the Moon: our telescopes can show an enormous amount of detail on the surface of the Moon [outdoor].
    5. Viewing planets: Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune will be well-placed for much of the semester; Saturn, Mercury, and Venus may be briefly visible.
    6. Viewing the Sun: filters which reject 99.999% of the incoming light allow us to see sunspots on the Sun.
    7. Deep Sky Objects: study appearance of double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies [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: see how brightness and detail depend on the diameter of a telescope [outdoor].

  3. Dynamics
    1. Planetary Motions: observations of other planets reveal retrograde behavior 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. Jupiter's Satellites: Jupiter and its four bright moons resemble a `miniature Solar System' — with a striking difference [outdoor].
    4. Falling Bodies: recreate Galileo's key experiments and establish link to orbital motion [indoor].

  4. 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 an estimate of the Moon's distance [outdoor].
    3. An Occultation by the Moon: watching the Moon cover a star yields information on that star's distance [outdoor].
    4. Inverse-Square Law: verify the relationship between distance and apparent brightness [indoor].
    5. Light Curves of Variable Stars: observations of δ Cephei can yield its period, and hence its luminosity; we will also observe β Lyrae [outdoor].

  5. Light and Spectra
    1. Diffraction: the wave-like aspect of light can be revealed with simple equipment [indoor].
    2. Spectra in the Lab: each element has a unique `fingerprint' of spectral lines [indoor].
    3. Solar Spectrum: observe absorption lines in Sun's spectrum [outdoor].
    4. 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 single night, but others entail observations spread over longer periods. For example, constellations (1b) will be periodically revisited over the semester; this allows us to become familiar with both Summer and Fall constellations. Repeated observations are also necessary to follow planetary motion (3a), study the shape of the Moon's orbit (3b), and measure the light curves of variable stars (4e).

Joshua E. Barnes      (barnes at
Updated: 21 August 2011
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