Astro 8A: Observational Astronomy - Fall '17


Instructor: Rick Nolthenius
Lab Instructonal Assistant: Becky Snow
Office: 706a
Phone: 479-6506, but I'm easier to reach by email: rinolthe at
Office Hours: 11-12pm and 5-6pm Mon (Rm 706a) ,
Tue (at observatory)
11am-12 noon Wed (706a)
5-6pm Fri (at observatory)

Very Important!
On clear nights (except the first day of class), go straight to the observatory (click on the aerial view map) don't go to the classroom - going to the classroom first will just slow us down tremendously. When you arrive, park along the sides of the road, near the lower well (see map). Do not park on the flat observing pad around the buildings, nor on the incline to the upper well (that spot is reserved for me and our lab assistant Dave!
On cloudy nights, go straight to room 705.

Here's how I define a clear night: There must be enough cloudless sky to enable you to locate your target objects with only a bit of patience and get some projects worked on. That means no more than 60% of the sky has clouds, and the clear areas are big, not tiny. Beware of cirrus clouds - those wispy thin clouds. Unfortunately, even though you can see some stars through cirrus, it ruins our ability to do ANY of your projects and so a sky filled with thin cirrus is still a "cloudy night" in my book. If you go to the observatory and after 15 minutes I'm still not there, you probably mis-judged the sky and we're already doing projects in room 705. And vice-versa.


1. Go to Outdoor World or Home Depot and ask for their red/white LED elastic headlamps - about $14 - for hands-free observing. A cheap source for keychain red LED lights is here. Make sure to get the one with the slider switch
2. A 3-ring binder for your lab booklet which I'll give you on week #2 (your "Observing Lab Book")
3. Calculator which does exponents and logs; although we have several for use in the Room 705 lab room, it's best if you have your own in case we run low.
4. pencil and eraser (most labs should not be done in pen. You'll be doing corrections along the way.
5. For occultations, we will need to have some stopwatch people. Most cell phones have a stop watch function, and most electronic watches as well.

1. Warm clothes! Repeat - WARM clothes! It's about 5 degrees cooler in the canyon that's home to the observatory than on the rest of the campus. By November I usually wear two pairs of pants, and 2 jackets (one is made of down), and a wool cap.
2. Binoculars (Cabrillo has 14 pair - not quite enough for everyone, and binocs are the best thing for variable star projects. If you have a pair please  bring them.
3. Star and Planet Locator - available in bookstore (also here), about $4-5; way cheap!) Or, better, SkyView - a free app for your iPhone
4. A USB flash drive. Cheap, $5 at the bookstore. For transferring your photo images off the observatory computers.
Laptop Windows PC computer. Late in the semester, we'll spend a fair amount of time in class helping you process your astrophotos, and we only have 6 computers in room 705. PLEASE bring your own laptops!
6. Snacks (chocolate chip cookies are especially delicious to the instructor!) . We have an electric hot water pot at the observatory, so you can make tea or hot chocolate IF you bring your own mug and students chip in for a box of hot chocolate that is.

Here's the general schedule of possibilities for clear nights at the observatory. Mostly determined by the phase of the moon. Big moons mean fewer options as it's pretty bright out there. Notice that the fraction of your grade which is accounted for by the differing sections below is only approximate. The reason is that we don't know how many clear nights we'll have and therefore how much of our work will be indoor projects and how many are observatory projects. That will only clarify at the end of class, you're welcome to ask me towards the end and I'll give you my estimate.

Schedule for Class Nights at the Observatory, weather permitting

Here's my system...Work will be divided between cloudy night in-class quizzes/labs, and clear night observing projects at the observatory. The percentages quoted will be adjusted depending on the fraction of clear/cloudy nights and what we have time for, and what projects happen; for example, the photometry project has suffered recently due to equipment trouble and we've not done it for the past couple of years. I hope this can change as we get an additional telescope with tracking. We may instead make use of new online software to determine the orbit of an asteroid from exposures taken by students on the 12" scope.

A. Lab Book Individual Projects: roughly 30% of grade: I've made up a list of projects which require simple visual observations using telescopes, binoculars, or the naked eye at the observatory. These can range from drawings of planets and comets to charting planet movements, to monitoring the brightness of variable stars, to timing lunar occultations, etc. There may be an additional lab or two added later - depending on late-breaking astro discoveries. Put them into a 3-ring binder. If you don't, in the dark they'll tend to get lost, stepped on, soaked with dew, ripped out, etc.. Note HOW you made the observation (What telescope, what eyepiece, what time, what were the conditions like (i.e. any clouds, what was the seeing quality?) You'll hand in your notebook at the end of the course. The more detail I see, the more observant I'll think you were. Also NEATNESS COUNTS! I've seen too many sheets with stuff just scribbled on them - a prefunctory effort does not qualify you for an "A" ("A" stands for "AOutstanding!" not "Adequate"). Not all projects will be possible to complete, since some depend on events which happen only once or twice and may be clouded out. Of course, this is factored into the grading, and this (plus unpredictable weather) is why this part gets a "roughly" in front of the percentage. At the end of the course, during our Finals time, we'll do labs to plot class light curves for our variable stars, and the winners of each of the stars will get an extra 3 pts added to their Lab Book (which is scored with a possible 100 pts max) for each light curve they "win".

B. Team Projects 10% of Grade: In addition to these individual projects, I hope to have one team project, for 2-3 member teams. Make friends early!

Photometry or Asteroid Orbit Calculation Project - If we do photometry, you'll use our 8 " Meade telescope with photoelectric photometer and computer link to take data on an eclipsing binary star. Each of you will rotate through different duties of the data-taking process. I will give you plenty of help here. During your photometry project night you will only do other on-going lab projects as time permits - your primary goal is to take good photometric data for later analysis in the classroom.
Or... we'll use the 12" Dome scope to take images of an asteroid and then in the classroom use to get precise position measurements, and then use other software to combine the measurements into a determination for the 6 parameters that fully describe an elliptical orbit.

C. Astrophotography Project: 20% of Grade: We now have a high quality color CCD camera capable of taking beautiful pictures of star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This connects to our 12" scope under the dome, and student-operated through "Spock" our affectionately named computer. I'll give you plenty of help in setting up to get a series of exposures and learn the techniques of modern imaging in Astronomy. You'll then do an in-class lab to turn these raw images into a finished image and 8x10 print to be turned in by the final day of class. Hang it on your wall and show your friends what a brilliant astrophotographer you are! They will also hang in our on-line gallery. You'll do an in-class lab to choose your subject, and another lab project will be processing your digital photo into both a printed framed masterpiece, and also a .jpg version for our gallery page. On-line instructions to polish your image are here. Grading your image project.

D. Classroom Projects for Cloudy Nights: ~ 25% of Total Grade: These will be done on lab sheets I hand out and which also more fully describe the lab. Most will have math required, so always have your calculator! Each of you will record your own work on your own labsheets. These may include Classifying Galaxies, compiling an H-R Diagram for a sample of stars, determining the orbit of Mercury from clever observations, and others.

E. Quizzes: about ~15% of Total Grade: I have some video programs. The History Channel "Universe" series, some "Nova" programs, and a few others. These are usually one hour long. We'll see the video, you taking good notes, and afterward we talk a little and then you take a multiple choice quiz using your own notes. We may also have a planetarium visit one night, followed by a quiz. It'll be pretty hard for you to make up missed video quizes, as I can't loan them out for you to take home and test security is always a problem. Good attendence is really essential in this class.

F. Good Work Attitude: Because of the variety of projects and the limited and varied number of telescopes and instruments we have, you will not all be doing the same projects at the same time. Therefore, there's a premium put on being a self-starter, the ability to make good use of your time. You get a top grade in this category by keeping forward momentum. If one project can't be worked on, you find another. If you need clarification, you find me or Becky or Dave and ask for it. One thing drilled into astronomers in training in grad school is that their alloted time on the big telescopes is precious. If a grad student were to show up unprepared, who slept during the night (even if it were cloudy), or who didn't stay focused. Well, he wouldn't win any more nights from the TAC's (time allocation committees that award observing time on the Big Scopes, based on proposals). Showing up ready to make maximum use of your night sky time is especially important in the Spring, when we have weather issues early on, and by the time the storms are over we have late twilight spoiling much or even most of our 3 hour observing period.

Here's how it works. After your numerical grade has been figured from all other work, I'll then figure in your "work attitude" score. Each day you show up, spend it productively doing your work, you get full credit for that night. If you show up very late, or leave very early when there's more work to be done, you lose some. If you show up but show poor attitude and basically let others do your work for you, you lose some. I total these and divide by the number of days we met during the semester and this is your "work attitude" score. If this is MORE than your other scores, I will include it as another factor in your grading - worth 25% of your entire rest of your work, so it'll help a lot! If it doesn't help your grade, then I don't count it (because, the Powers that Be say I can't hurt your grade because of poor attendence).

F. Extra Credit: We always are in need of new and neat stuff, some of which can be built. If you are good with the soldering iron or workshop and we have a good idea, you can essentially get all your credit by a special project we decide on. Build and donate a radio telescope, or an FM meteor detection system, or...?? If you have an idea for a neat educational lab demonstration, run the idea by me and I may give you extra credit and some class time to teach and entertain us by doing the demo! One idea I'd really like to see done is to construct a diffusion cloud chamber so we can watch cosmic rays. Takes only about $7 of materials and no skill. Details on the web: google search on "diffusion cloud chamber". Another idea is to make a chart showing the altitude of the actual horizon at our observatory, 360 degrees all around. That would be very useful for us.

Turning in In-Class Lab Projects Late. Your at-the-observatory lab book is turned in only at the final exam - the last day of the semester. However, you'll be doing in-class labs as well. In order for me to be able to return graded work in a timely manner, I need to get your completed labs in a timely way. My policy is that you should turn in your lab at the end of the class it's given out. However, you may also continue working on it at home and turn it in the following week w/o penalty. After that, your grade is docked 8% for each week, so that if your work earned a 90% score, it becomes an 82% score if handed in 2 weeks late, for example.
1 week late - no penalty
2 weeks late - lose 8%
3 weeks late - lose 16%

4 weeks late - lose 24% etc.

Grading Scale
A --- 85% and above
B --- 75%
C --- 65%  Pass
D --- 57%
F --- less than 57%

Astronomy Tutoring: A graduate student in Astronomy at UCSC, Eugenio Rivera, has let me know he's available for private tutoring in Astronomy. If interested, please email me and I'll send you his contact information.

ADDED Esprit de Corps...You're all welcome and encouraged to bring along cookies, brownies and other snacks to share. It'll help us all "bond", and besides, we'll need the calories to keep us warm down in the canyon where the observatory is. You can also feel free to bring along some drinks (no drugs or alcohol, of course). We have a hot water pot so bring your mug if you want to make some hot chocolate.

Students with disabilities:
Students needing accommodations should inform the instructor. As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), accommodations are provided to insure equal access for students with verified disabilities. To determine if you qualify or need assistance with an accommodation, please contact ACCESSIBILITY SUPPORT CENTER (Formerly DSPS), Room 1073, (831) 479-6379.

The Official Student Learner Outcomes for Astro 8A

1. Operate an astronomical telescope, including polar alignment and object acquisition.
2. Measure and chart the brightness of irregular and periodic variable stars, including error estimation.
3. Manipulate digital images of astronomical objects to bring out subtle morphologies and colors, and capture the full dynamic range of intensities.
4. Demonstrate the acquisition of digital images, using telescope/ software/ computer control systems, and optimizing relevant choices in the process.