Introductory Astronomy

Lead Faculty:

Course Overview

Astronomy is arguably the oldest of the sciences. In many respects, the history of astronomy demonstrates the improvement of humanity’s understanding of the universe from superstition to the use of scientific methods. With new improvements in imaging technology and the ability to place observatories in orbit, we are currently in an era in which our knowledge of the universe is, in my opinion, expanding at a greater rate then any time since Galileo first peered into his telescope. In this course, we will emphasize the current research being conducted in astronomy.

The course will start with an overview of the physical properties of light and gravity. The understanding of these laws is greatly responsible for our current understanding of the universe. The nature of light and other electromagnetic waves will give you an insight into the properties of stars such as temperature, composition, and distance. The law of gravity will enable you to understand how astronomers know the mass of a star, calculate the orbits of the planets, and why we know that the universe consists of over 95% “dark matter” and “dark energy” even though we are not able to see either.

The next part of the course will concern itself with our neighborhood, the solar system. We will start by examining the origin and history of the planets including the Earth. We generally do not think of studying the Earth as astronomy, but the Earth is a planet and we can often find clues to the history of the solar system right here. We will then proceed to investigate the key differences between the inner planets (Mercury to Mars) and the outer planets (Jupiter to Neptune). It is these differences which have allowed us to arrive at a workable theory as to how the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.

The journey will then continue to the stars. The first star we will examine is the Sun. It is the closest star to us and the only star that we can directly view the details of its surface. As we study stars outside the solar system, we will encounter an exotic variety of objects. These include red giants such as Betelgeuse, whose diameter would encompass the orbit of Mars, and neutron stars whose radius is 6 miles wide and rotate several times a second. We will also study black holes, whose gravitational field is so strong that even light cannot escape.

The conclusion of the course will concern the structure of galaxies and how the red shift of these galaxies supports the theory of the origin of the universe, the big bang. As with the previous topics, we will start in our own vicinity with the Milky Way. We will then examine other galaxies, which include elliptical and irregular shaped galaxies. The shape of a galaxy gives us clues as to its history. Finally, we will study cosmology that concerns itself with the formation of the universe. All galaxies recede from each other. It is this fact that first gave us an understanding that the universe is expanding. This expansion is a result of the origin of the universe, the Big Bang, that has caused the universe to expand from a singularity to the size it is today.

  • Astronomy by Fraknoi, Morrison, & Wolff, provided by OpenStax (CC BY)
  • Stellarium¬†online planetarium (open source software)

Course Information

  • Welcome!
  • Contact Information
  • Overview
  • Textbook and Due Dates
  • How You Will Be Evaluated
  • Your Next Steps

Module 1: Introduction to Astronomy

  • What’s Due When
  • Stellarium Software
  • Celestial Coordinates
  • Ancient Astronomy
  • Instructions for Discussion
  • Discussion: Observing the Night Sky
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 2: Properties of Motion and Light

  • What’s Due When
  • Freefall and Weightlessness
  • Famous Telescopes
  • Amateur Astronomy
  • Quiz
  • Instructions for Written Assignment
  • Written Assignment: Research Paper Proposal
  • Discussion: Telescopes
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 3: The Earth and Moon System

  • What’s Due When
  • Solstice & Equinox
  • Global Warming
  • The Apollo Program
  • Quiz
  • Written Assignment: Moon Mission & Stellarium Observation
  • Discussion: NASA Earth Observatory
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 4: The Solar System

  • What’s Due When
  • Space Exploration: The Inner Planets
  • Stellarium: The Planets
  • Research Paper
  • Space Exploration: The Outer Planets
  • Pluto
  • Halley’s Comet
  • Quiz 1
  • Quiz 2
  • Written Assignment: Planetarium Assignment
  • Discussion: Space Exploration & The Solar System
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 5: The Sun

  • What’s Due When
  • Observing the Sun
  • Space Weather
  • Quiz
  • Discussion: Analysis of Solar Images
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 6: Stellar Properties

  • What’s Due When
  • Properties of Stars
  • Wien’s Law: A Review
  • Hipparcos
  • Quiz
  • Written Assignment: Constructing an H-R Diagram
  • Discussion: Astronomy Beyond the Optical Spectrum
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 7: Galaxies

  • What’s Due When
  • Structure of a Spiral Galaxy
  • Astronomy: A Look Into the Future
  • Quiz
  • Discussion: Hubble Images
  • Talk with the Professor

Module 8: Cosmology

  • What’s Due When
  • Relativity
  • Astronomy Beyond the Course
  • Research Paper
  • Quiz
  • Discussion: Cosmology
  • Talk with the Professor


  • Astronomical Events This Semester
  • Astronomy Websites
  • Meet Your Classmates
  • Culminating Activity: Course Feedback Survey