AY 203: Observational Astronomy Syllabus


Dr. Keel


Students should normally have completed AY101 or a more advanced astronomy course; people now enrolled in AY101 or AY204 can be admitted with consent of instructor (i.e. at their own risk).


This course is designed to give motivated students direct experience in astronomical observations and their analysis, including visual and electronic techniques. We will use portable telescopes on campus, the 16-inch telescope of the campus observatory, telescopes located in the darker skies at Moundville, and observatory telescopes in Arizona and Chile by internet control.The course carries 2 credit hours (one lecture, one lab).

Both indoor exercises and observing projects are included. The lab scheduled for a particular period depends on the weather, phase of the moon, etc. There will be 12 sessions for the lab. Each student will do an independent observing project during the semester; get an early start to avoid being clouded out! The lab reports should be self-contained and complete descriptions of each exercise when forms are not provided in the exercise.

Learning Goals

After successful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Understand coordinate systems used in finding and recording celestial objects
  • Set up and use common types of portable telescopes
  • Locate celestial objects of interest using telescopes with and without automated pointing systems
  • Perform and interpret imaging observations with electronic detectors
  • Analyze data sets using simple mathematical models, including the role of measurement error
  • Carry out and report a complete research project, from concept and data collection to analysis and conclusions

Class Preparation

You should bring a calculator and elementary astronomy text (surely you didn’t sell it back to the bookstore!). For outdoor labs, remember that it can get pretty cold late in the fall, and dress accordingly. For some lab exercises, a millimeter ruler will help. Some dark-sky sessions will take place at Moundville Archaeological Park, for which a flashlight will be particularly helpful. In fact, a flashlight is a good idea any time we’re actually observing, much better than trying to read charts with a cigarette lighter.

Specific subjects for each session depend on the weather and phase of the Moon, so if weather dictates, we can select the most appropriate activity shortly before starting. This preliminary schedule of activities is subject to change depending on the weather.

Possible Learning Projects

  • Rotation of giant planets
  • Masses of planets from orbits of their satellites
  • Hertzsprung-Russell diagram for a star cluster
  • Stellar spectra and classification
  • Meteor photography
  • Light curves and physical properties of variable stars
  • The distribution of galaxies in nearby clusters
  • Variability of quasars and active galactic nuclei
  • Structures of gaseous nebulae
  • Comet tracking (if any are bright enough this term)
  • Detection of giant extrasolar planets as they pass in front of their stars

Grading Policy

The course grade will be based on results and written reports of the lab sessions (75%) and individual observing projects (25%). There is no final exam. Attendance is important since many of the activities are hands-on and cannot always be rescheduled. Students who must miss an activity should contact me to negotiate appropriate equivalent activities, where possible.

Other Important Information

Academic misconduct: All students in attendance at the University of Alabama are expected to be honorable and to observe standards of conduct appropriate to a community of scholars. The University expects from its students a higher standard of conduct than the minimum required to avoid discipline. Academic misconduct includes all acts of dishonesty in any academically related matter and any knowing or intentional help, or conspiracy to help, another student. The Academic Misconduct Disciplinary Policy will be followed in the event of academic misconduct.

Disability Services: Students with disabilities are encouraged to register with the Office of Disability Services (348-4285). Thereafter, you are invited to schedule appointments to see me during office hours to discuss accommodations or other special needs.