Brief Course Description


Advanced Observational Astronomy

The Nature of this Course

Basic Course Outline




Laboratory Projects

  • Precise position determination on the sky
  • Variability surveillance for magnitudes and colors
  • Determination of time of minimum for a variable star
  • Stellar spectra
  • Special project

Course Web Site



The Nature of this Course

Okay, so this course will not be using the Keck telescopes. The casual observer might make this assumption on the basis of the image which appears at the top of this page. Yes, this is an image of the two Keck telescopes and the Subaru telescope all preparing for work just after sunset overlooking a sea of clouds below. (You might also want to check out a higher resolution version by clicking on the image.) While we will not be using these telescopes, this course will provide you with information and experience that can make it possible for you to effectively contribute to and participate in observing programs which utilize major astronomical research facilities.

So, what will we be doing in this course?

This course will provide an analytical introduction to the fundamental techniques utilized in observational astronomy and astrophysics. These are the techniques utilized by observational astronomers. These techniques are utilized to derive physical characteristics for stars, nebulae, galaxies, minor planets, and comets. The emphasis of the course will be on the use of observatory-based computer controlled telescope systems and CCD cameras. The underlying principles and concepts will be generally applicable both for ground-based and space-based systems in all regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Class participants will be introduced to the preparation, observing, and data reduction necessary for telescopic observing programs. This course will give you the experience needed to participate, to contribute, and to develop professional level observing programs in astronomy and astrophysics.

This course should be of interest to students contemplating graduate work in astronomy, astrophysics, physics, or related fields. This course will be of special relevance to students interested in technical careers at astronomical centers and facilities. Of course, the course will be of special interest to students interested in research projects in astronomy.

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Basic Course Outline

I. Preliminary material
1. Practical astronomy

2. Categories of astronomical objects

3. Finding charts

4. Finding telescopic objects

5. Advanced practical astronomy


II. The course

1. basic nature and operation of CCDs

2. astrometry

3. photometry

4. spectroscopy

5. introduction to image processing

6. introduction to IRAF(interactive reduction and analysis facility)

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1. Interest in learning about observational astronomy

2. Willingness to do science out of doors, at night, in the cold...

3. Familiarity with computers

4. Some familiarity with astronomy and telescopes, as in an introductory astronomy course... or the equivalent in independent reading

5. Some familiarity with good laboratory practice, as in a physical science laboratory course

6. Ability to integrate and differentiate simple functions, as in a second semester calculus course

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1. Each class participant will be required to submit reports for several laboratory projects. These reports should be sufficiently detailed so that another student taking this course in the future would be able to understand your work and be able to reproduce your results.

2. There will be occasional assignments. These assignments may involve collecting data at the Observatory, researching sources of astronomical data, or computations associated with the course content.

3. Class participants will be expected to sign up in advance for using the Observatory. You are free to set your own schedule, but you are responsible for obtaining the required observations and for reducing the acquired data. Standard policy for use of the Observatory requires that more than one person must be present at all times.

4. Students may work together at the Observatory, and students are encouraged to work together on the data data reduction and analysis. However, each student is responsible for obtaining his or her own data, and each student is responsible for preparing his or her own project reports.

5. For the final exam for the course we will review the data obtained for each of the projects. We will attempt to combine all the data obtained for each of the projects and prepare tabular and graphical summaries. Yes, we will need to work together on this, and the data will need to be accumulated and reduced before the last class meeting!




Grades will be based primarily on the laboratory project reports. However, additional factors will also be considered. These factors include the assignments, observing technique, documentation of observations and procedures, and participation.

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The Laboratory Projects


1. precise position determination on the sky for a minor planet or comet

(one or two nights)

The goal here is to obtain precise positions for the program object(s) at the sub-arcsecond level on two or more nights. Observations are needed on two or more nights so you can demonstrate to yourself (and others) that the object did indeed move. You will compare your observations with precise ephemeris predictions and evaluate both the precision and the accuracy of your observations. You will also measure magnitudes for the program objects and compare with predicted values. These checks will seek out errors in the magnitude values for these minor planets and comets, look for unusual variations or rotational states, and attempt to improve the notoriously inaccurate absolute magnitudes and phase coefficients for these objects.


2. variability surveillance for magnitudes and colors for a variable star needing confirmation, a cataclysmic variable, or a semiregular variable

(two or more nights)

The goal here is to monitor the target objects to search for variability and to document variability. These objects could increase or decrease in brightness by several magnitudes over periods of several weeks or months, or even over several days or hours. Since these objects might be irregular and not totally predictable, the discovery of an outburst or irregularity may alert other observers to check on the object from the ground and from space. Even confirmation of total quisence would be an important contribution. R band observations good to 1% should be obtained once a night on a minimum of 2-3 nights. Occasional observations in V and I should also be obtained to document color variability (especially during an outburst or eclipse).

Observations should also be obtained to establish appropriate secondary standard stars in the field of the variable. You will need to evaluate the precision and accuracy of your photometric measurements.


3. determination of a time of minimum (or maximum) for a variable star

(one night, 2-4 hours continuous coverage)

The goal here is to determine as many high quality observations as possible (time series data) and to analyze this data to determine a precise time of minimum (or maximum) which will hopefully be good to at least the nearest second of time. Deviations from predicted times can indicate period changes, orbital eccentricity, and apsidal motion. Apsidal motion can be caused by the presence of a companion star, the mass distribution within the stars, and by general relativity for massive stars. Period changes can indicate mass transfer events between the components. Determinations of two or more times of minimum can be used to determine the period for the system and can be used to document period changes.


4. stellar spectra: record and analyze the spectrum of a star

(one night, if everything goes just right!)

The goal here is to obtain a stellar spectrum for a stellar type designated by the instructor. A comparison spectrum with emission lines of known wavelenghts must be available. You will identify the prominent absorption lines, determine the observed wavelengths for these lines, and determine the radial velocity for the star. The derived radial velocity will be compared with published values.


5. special project

This is a research project related to the course that you will develop. The special project can be a simple expansion or extension of one of the other lab projects for the course, or it can be something entirely different. The special project can involve obtaining additional observations, or it can involve analyzing some existing data using some alternative or different approach. The special project can involve developing or modifying some software related to the course, or can involve developing or modifying some form of instrumentation related to the course. We will spend some class time discussing these projects, and you should be prepared to present the results for your project to the class by the time of the final class meeting.

Here is a brief list of some possible topics for some observationally-based special projects.

Remember, this is your project. You may need to conduct some research or do some extra reading. You may need to select objects to observe, plan observing programs, and plan how you will analyze the data. You are free to work independently, but you may also work within groups to collaborate on a project. Naturally, it would be expected that group projects would demonstrate more total work than an individual project. For group projects all group members are expected to contribute equally.

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Course Web Site

A more detailed syllabus for this course is contained within the course web site. The material for this course is organized as a WebCT course. Thus, you will need a WebCT username and password to access this material. The instructor will provide usernames and passwords at the first class meeting.

Astronomy 482 Course Web Site

In addition to a detailed course syllabus and specific requirements for lab projects, the web site contains an extensive collection of notes related to the course content. This includes material about basic astronomy and telescopes, as well as technical material about CCDs and data reduction. Specific technical resources are provided for astrometry, photometry, and spectroscopy. The web site also contains documentation for SSU Observatory systems and software systems useful for observational astronomy.

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January 2001