Frontiers in Astronomy

Course Syllabus

Dr. Spear's Section

The Nature of the Frontiers

The Nature of this Course

Course Content

Course Requirements


Course Web Site


The Nature of the Frontiers

The frontiers are the new areas. They are the areas not yet fully explored or understood. They are the exciting areas. They are surely the areas where new knowledge is being obtained. In astronomy, the frontiers can take us to new places such as the Kuiper belt, newly discovered planetary systems, the inside of an active galaxy, inside regions of active star formation, inside a supernova. The frontiers can introduce us to new types of objects such as hypernovae, blazars, cataclysmic variables, brown dwarfs. The frontiers can introduce us to new concepts such as dark matter, an anthropic universe, alternative universes, or supermassive blackholes. The frontiers can also introduce us to new ways of looking at familiar objects such as comets.

The frontiers are rarely easy or comfortable places to be. It is rarely easy to be on the cutting edge. It is rarely easy not to be entirely certain that your ideas are correct. This is the nature of the frontiers.

There is normally always controversy on the frontiers. It is often as a result of such controversies that new knowledge is obtained. There is normally always discrepancy on the frontiers. It is often through discrepancy between expectations and observations that new knowledge is obtained.

Actually, all of science may be viewed as being on the frontier. This is because, by its very nature, science as a method of obtaining knowledge is never complete. There are always new areas to explore and to try to understand. There are always new ways of looking at existing data. There are always new observations that suggest that the old ways of looking at things may not be entirely complete or entirely correct. Thus, new frontiers may present themselves even as we watch. However, the focus of this course will be on those areas of astronomy that presently appear to obviously be incompletely investigated.

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The Nature of this Course

science course

This course is a science course. This course is based on the concepts and precepts and assumptions of the scientific method. Any ideas are eligible for consideration, but for the purposes of this course, topics must be approachable using the methods of science. Our criticisms and evaluations of ideas and activities will be based on the methods of science.

second course

This is a second course in astronomy. It is assumed that students who take this course have had a formal descriptive introduction to astronomy. To be eligible to take this course, students must have successfully completed a first course in astronomy. At Sonoma State University this prerequisit can be satisfied by the course Astronomy 100 (Descriptive Astronomy). Similar courses at other institutions will also satisfy this requirement. A physical science course in high school does not satisfy this requirement.

web-assisted course

This is a web-assisted course. We will use the World Wide Web (web) for communication and for archiving the course content. Course requirements and assignments will be available only from the web. Student assignments and projects will be submitted and posted using the web. Grades will also be available from the web. To successfully complete this course you will need to have access to the web. The instructor will be available to assist students with using the web.

While it will be most convenient for you to have web access from your home or dorm room, you may also use any networked computer workstation on the Sonoma State campus. Indeed, you may use any computer anywhere that has internet access and a web browser. A web browser that supports Java and QuickTime is strongly recommended.

We will be using the WebCT system to support the course. The instructor will have user names and passwords at the first class meeting. The instructor will also be available to assist students with using the WebCT system.


This course is designed as a seminar. We will all contribute to the course. Students will work in groups to research and present most of the content of the course. Research topics will be suggested by the instructor, but groups can adjust the focus of the research according to the interests of students in the group. Presentations will be made verbally to the class and will be posted on the class website.

Each student is expected to be actively involved in learning about the material covered in the course. Each student is expected to contribute thoughtfully to class discussions. Each student should be prepared to describe any of the class presentations for the instructor.

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Course Content

The content of this course is the frontiers of astronomy. In broad terms, the categories of these frontiers may be represented according to the following scheme. Some possible presentation topics are indicated for each category.

Planetary systems
  • Planets, moons, minor planets, comets
  • Spacecraft exploration of our planetary system
  • Surveys for NEOs
  • Surveys for other planetary systems
  • Physical nature of other planetary systems
  • Solar activity
  • Searching for life in the universe

Instrumentation in astronomy

  • Instrumentation for astronomy from space
  • New generation ground based optical telescopes

The new astronomies

  • Radio
  • IR
  • UV
  • X-ray
  • Gamma-ray
  • Cosmic ray
  • Dark matter
    • Missing mass
    • MACHOS
    • WIMPS
    • Gravitational Lenses

The old astronomies

  • Astrometry - from space
  • Spectral classification
  • Stellar evolution and interiors
  • Variable stars
  • Cataclysmic variables
  • Supernovae

Galactic and extragalactic astronomy

  • Distribution of objects and structure in our galaxy
  • Central regions of our galaxy
  • Classification of galaxies
  • Physical nature and distribution of galaxies
  • Extragalactic distances
  • Evolution of galaxies
  • The Big Bang



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Course Requirements

Course requirements consist of group projects and individual projects. For group projects, all students in the group are expected and assumed to contribute equally to any group results. Specific information about student groups and working in a group may be found in the Group Projects document.

The group projects include...

Group Presentations

This is the primary course content. Student groups will research and present results on topics selected from the astronomical frontiers. Two or more related presentations will be scheduled each class meeting. Oral presentations will be made to the class and presentations will be posted to the class website.

Group Responses

Student groups will be assigned to formulate a response and lead a class discussion after each presentation. The goal for these responses will be to identify the key points made, to identify the background material needed to understand the presentation, to identify questions raised by the presentation, to identify possible controversies related to the material presented, and to identify what additional scientific followup might be suggested. It is not the goal of these responses to critique the presentations.

Selected News from the Frontiers

Student groups will be assigned to report on items in the news that are relevant to the topics currently being presented in class. These reports should address why the selected news items are significant, should identify the aspects of science that appear in the news items, and should suggest what scientific followup might be productive.


The individual projects include...

The Glossary Project

Each student will identify and contribute items for a glossary for the course. These glossary items can be related to any aspects of the course content, to specific course presentations, or to news items related to the course.

News from the Frontiers

Each student will select and report on items appearing in the news that are related to the course. News items may be selected from magazines, from newspapers, from the radio, from television, or from the internet.

Specific detailed requirements for all projects may be found in the Course Requirements document.

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Grades will be based on class presentations, on material posted to the web, and on contribution to class discussions. The approximate weighting for the course requirements is as follows:

Group Presentations
Group Responses
Group Selected News
The Glossary Project
News from the Frontiers


Course Web Site

All the materials and information for this course will be available from the course web site. This material includes details about the required projects, details about other course assignments, resource materials, plus course notes.

The course web site will also be used for posting results of assignments and projects for review and comment by the instructor and by class participants. Standard online communication tools such as private email, bulletin boards, and chat will also be available.

The environment for the course web site is the WebCT system.

The URL for the course web site is...



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July 2000