ASTRO 120: Fall 2017
The Sky and the Solar System

Astronomy is the oldest of sciences. Yet it remains as important today as when humans first began to understand the motions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. Modern planetary astronomy provides us with a glimpse of the diversity of other worlds, from the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus and the changing climate of Mars to the shifting ice flows on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Knowledge of the similarities and differences between "worlds" in our solar system, and the factors which forged and continue to change them, may be crucial to our long-term survival on Earth. With the recent discoveries of planetary systems around other stars, we can ask (with hopes for an answer) that most profound of questions - are we alone in the Universe?

Astronomy places human development in context. The planets in our solar system began to form about 5 billion years ago as a result of violent collisions between chunks of debris left over from the formation of the Sun. This time period is more than 500 times farther back in prehistory than the appearance of the first human-like beings on Earth. Although astronomy cannot hope to solve our problems on Earth, it can provide us with a perspective of our surroundings which may positively influence future decisions we make about our fragile world, and the millions of life forms that exist on its surface and in its oceans.

We hope to try to capture some of the spirit of this in Astro 120, but as we do, keep in mind the words of Walt Whitman.

Lectures: The lectures are the core of this course, and define its content. Regular attendance in lecture will be a key component to your success in Astro 120. You can expect frequent, brief, in-lecture exercises and quizzes. In addition to helping you master the material discussed in lecture, these will be recorded for each student. As attendence in lecture is expected, and each individual "lecture challenge" is lecture-specific, no makeup opportunities will be available for the in-lecture events.

Reading assignments provided in the Course Outline will assist your mastery of the material. Most things shown in lecture will also be posted at the Astro 120 WWW site (see below).

Recitation Sections: These meet once per week in B57 Physics (in the planetarium). In recitation, topics presented in lecture will be discussed at length in smaller peer groups. The planetarium will also be used to demonstrate some of the essential aspects of the sky and the motions of the Sun and moon. You will also learn to recognize a number of stars and constellations. This is mainly for fun and hopefully will ease your terror when standing within the inky blackness of space at night.

Recitation sections provide an opportunity to work individually and in small groups on course material and assignments. You are required to attend all meetings of your recitation section. Some course material will be covered only in the sections, and you will be responsible for that material on the exams. If you do not attend your recitation section regularly, you will not pass this course.

Web Pages: The course website is
The website will be used for reading assignments, distribution of homework assignnments, notices and other news items.w the WWW site. We will also provide topic lists and other review aids prior to exams. The website will be as a way for you to access photographs, videos, and notes shown in lecture. You will be able to get a close look at some of the very exciting and new images that we will be studying. Links to some interesting and fun web sites will also be found there.

Grades for the course will be available through the ISU Blackboard system, along with links to the material on the regular course website. NOTE: Blackboard is NOT the primary WWW source for the course.

Homework: assignments will be given most weeks during the term. They will be posted on the course website (and announced in lecture) and will be due to be handed in recitation (i.e. Friday or the following Monday) about a week after they are assigned. Late homework assignments will not be accepted except for unusual circumstances.

Help Room: The instructors in this course will be available for individual help during Help Room hours. The location of the Help Room, and the specific hours when Astro 120 instructors will be there, will be announced in lecture and recitation. Feel free to attend the hours of instructors other than your recitation TA. All instructors will also be available to help you at other times by appointment. Our offices and e-mail addresses are listed above.

Lecture Notes: Lecture notes will be posted on the course web site. A warning: These notes are not a complete text, nor do they cover all the material that we expect the students to learn in this course.

Textbook: OpenStax: Astronomy, First Digital Edition,
        by Fraknoi, Morrisson, Wolff et al.
This textbook is available totally free online at the link above. It is WWW-based but you can also download the entire book as a PDF for viewing or printing. It is a first-rate text, based on a leading print-only text that the primary authors moved to open-source. They also enlisted a team of astronomers for updating and modernizing this resource.

Readings will be assigned in this text for almost all course topics. We will use this text to supplement lecture material: use the book as a resource to help understand the material presented in class.

Star Wheel: We recommend (but don't require) that you purchase a "star wheel", which may be available at some bookstores or online. JAX, on the west end of town, sometimes has some nicer ones for less than $15. Or you can make your own by following these instructions. This clever and inexpensive device can be a big help as you learn the constellations. It shows the stars visible in the sky over Ames at any given date and time in a realistic way, allowing you to find your way across the skies.


As a guide, in past semesters the grade breakdown has been approximately: where the number grade is a combination of all exams and recitation grades. Grades on individual exams will not necessarily be representative of the final distribution, but following each exam we will provide estimates of the letter-grade equivalents.

Outdoor Observing Sessions: We are planning one or two optional evening outdoor observing sessions to obtain a first-hand view of the sky. These sessions will be announced in advance in lecture, but are tentatively planned for the weeks of August 28, October, 23, and/or November 13. These sessions are open to all Astro 120 students and their friends and family; they don't call them "star parties" for nothing!

Tech Issues... and other issues common courtesy: I find that most "problems" associated with the presence of cell phones, computers, etc. in lecture go away when students simply use common sense. Laptops and tablets are allowed in lecture - and in fact are encouraged for use in viewing/taking notes and related activities. I find that when I have my laptop open at a talk or meeting, however, that the temptation to use it for a broader range of (ahem) activities is often too strong to resist. Please try to keep from getting distracted by your (or your neighbor's) device during lecture. Should laptop/tablet use be disruptive or annoying to others besides the users, this relaxed policy may need to change. Obviously, cell phones need to be set on vibrate (or, better, turned off) during lecture. Texting can be annoying to those around you, so please see the first sentence of this section and behave accordingly. If you need to leave class early (or arrive late) please try to let me know in advance (the start of lecture is a good time). In those cases, please enter/leave the room through the rear doors.

Accommodations: Any student who feels s/he may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact Prof. Kawaler privately to discuss your specific needs. The Disability Resources Office at 515-294-7220 in room 1076, Student Services Building assists in coordinating reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities.

Academic Integrity: The University has strict rules regarding academic integrity (a.k.a. cheating). See your online course catalog about academic dishonesty here. While we encourage collaborative learning in Astro 120, we also expect each student to accurately present his or her own work on assignments and exams. Copying, plagiarism, and other forms of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated.

Course Outline