ASTR310: Observational Astronomy
Fall 2012

Course Description:

Ancient cultures first began to understand the Universe with observations in visible light.  For many people today, astronomy is someone looking through a telescope at distant stars.  While few professional astronomers actually look through a telescope any more, images and spectra obtained with modern instrumentation are essential for exploring and understanding the Universe.  This class is an introduction to optical observational techniques, including the closely-related infrared and ultraviolet techniques.  Modern astronomy is above all a scientific discipline, and the course also covers relevant statistics, spherical trigonometry, time systems, catalogs, geometrical and physical optics, the effects of the atmosphere, and optical instruments.  In addition to covering these theoretical concepts, the class includes practical work using the University observatory's telescopes and electronic cameras.

Course Expectations:

Lecture attendance: Lectures meet in CSS 2428 on TuTh from 2:00-3:15 PM.  Prof. Harris will lead the lectures but you will be expected to raise questions and participate in discussions.  In order to do best in this course, you will need to attend ALL lectures. This is very important! The material on the homeworks and exams are based upon the material covered in the lectures and the textbook. If you have to miss a lecture, be sure to look at another student's notes and make sure that you understand what was covered.  Please ask Prof. Harris or the TA if you have questions.  You should read over the material before lecture and be prepared to discuss it.  A more careful reading is recommended after lecture. You should study your class notes sometime before the next lecture to make sure that everything is clear.  You are encouraged to ask questions in class -- any question you have is certain to be one others have -- during office hours, or over email.

Study Habits: Study wisely and ask for help if you need it. If you just cram the night before the exam, you probably will not do very well. It is better (and easier) if you keep up with the material on a daily basis. If you have questions, please see Prof. Harris or your TA. We are here to help you learn.


Grading is on a point scale with different assignments weighted as shown in the table. A description of each of these components is contained in this syllabus.

The Midterm and Final Exams are Major Scheduled Grading events defined in the University's policy on attendance (  Exam grades are adjusted upward, if need be, so the median score is at least 72%.  Letter grades will be assigned based upon your cumulative score. Here is how your grade will be determined from your point total in the class.

Letter Grade
< 50.0%

Plus/minus grades will be given within each letter grade for scores near the top and bottom of the percentage ranges.

This point scale makes it possible for everyone in the class to do well. For example, if everyone scores above 75% in the course, you would all receive either an A or a B letter grade. Any adjustments to the scores will make it easier to get a given grade, never more difficult. 

Observing projects:

A major component of this class is a set of projects  involving computer reduction and analysis of astronomical data, some of which you will obtain at the University of Maryland Observatory.  These projects are the single largest component of your grade.  This may be the first class you have had where weather plays a key role in whether you can complete your assignments.  Do not underestimate the time needed to luck into good weather, master data reduction, and write up your report -- you will want to start as soon as you can, and sooner than you think you need to!  Projects turned in after the lecture ends will be considered late and will receive 20% of the credit at most until 24 hours after the end of lecture, and 50% credit at most for projects turned in at the next lecture; no credit will be given for projects handed in more than one lecture late.  Projects carry nearly as much credit as the midterm, and are counted as a Major Grading Event (see policy on attendances and absences).

The projects will include:
  1. Daytime laboratory measurements the gain and readout noise of a CCD camera.
  2. Night observations at the observatory with the CCD camera(s) to image nebulae with interference filters.
  3. Night observations at the observatory with the CCD camera(s) and use of image-processing routines to obtain photometry of star clusters.
  4. Time and weather permitting, we may also try to do nighttime photometry of an exoplanet!
Labs (2) and (3) are night labs, and depend on weather conditions: they will only be held on clear nights as determined by the Observatory Assistant and advertised at the course website. The groups will sign up for nights in advance, and need to show up when labs are held. These labs require 2-3 hours of observing each, and additional time for data reduction, analysis, and report writing.  The reports must be typed and will follow the standard pattern of a short scientific paper covering observational or experimental work:
  1. The top of the first page contains your name, affiliation (University of Maryland, ASTR 310 Spring 2012), and a brief abstract summarizing your report.  (It is easist to write the abstract last.)
  2. Review the goal of the measurement and necessary techniques in an introduction.
  3. Thoroughly describe the procedure used to gather the data and the problems confronted in an observations section.
  4. Discuss and document in detail the procedure followed to reduce the data, including figures and tables whenever necessary, in an analysis section.
  5. State the conclusions reached and the reasoning behind them in a conclusions section.
The data acquisition for the projects will be done in groups of about 3 students, but the reports are individual.  I encourage discussions with your fellow students on how to best tackle the problems, but I will not tolerate copying or other forms of cheating. Such activities will be promptly reported to the UMD Student Honor Council. Please review the Honor Code of the University (see Academic Integrity below).  Data processing will be in MATLAB, running at the computer lab of the Astronomy Department (CSS1220) using accounts we will set up for you. You may use your personal computer if you have a student version of MATLAB or software to log into campus computers remotely.


There will be approximately five homework problem sets in this course. All homeworks will be available from the Assignments link on the class ELMS page. 

All homeworks must be turned in, neatly written or typed, on 8.5x11 inch paper in class on the assignment due date.   If for whatever reason, the University is officially closed on the due date, the due date shifts to the next lecture date.  Homework is due in hard copy, and except by prior special arrangement with Prof. Harris; electronically mailed versions of your homework without advance arrangement will not be accepted.   Homeworks turned in after the lecture ends will be considered late and will receive 20% of the credit at most until 24 hours after the end of lecture, and 50% credit at most for homework turned in at the next lecture; no credit will be given for homework handed in more than one lecture late.  If you have an excused absence that prevents you from handing your homework in on time, you must document it in writing (see Attendance and Absences, above)  and arrange to have the homework turned in as soon as possible, but no later than during the next lecture.

Although you may discuss the homework problems with your friends, the final writeup must be your own work in your own words. Copying from a friend's homework, copying from a book, or allowing a friend to copy your homework is academic dishonesty (see Academic Integrity below) and will not be tolerated in this class. If you consult a reference other than the course text, please acknowledge it in your homework - this includes websites!

Midterm Exam

There will be an in-class 75-minute examination which will be held in CSS 2428 on Thursday, October 18.   This exam is closed book with no notes allowed, but do bring a calculator. The schedule of lectures included in this syllabus shows what material will be covered on the mid-term exam.  The midterm exam is a Major Grading Event (see policy on attendances and absences).

If for whatever reason, the University is officially closed on the exam date, the exam date shifts to the next lecture date. 

Final Exam

According to University rules, the final exam for this course will be held on Friday, December 17, from 10:30 am to 12:30 am in CSS 2428. This final exam is cumulative, that is, it will cover all material discussed in this course.  Material not covered by the midterm exam (see Lecture Schedule) will be somewhat emphasized in the final exam.  This exam is closed book with no notes, but do bring a calculator.  The final exam is a Major Grading Event (see policy on attendances and absences).

Extra Credit

There will be no extra credit assignments in this class.

Attendance and Absences

Please review the University's Attendance and Assessment Policy at and the University policy on  medically-necessitated absences at    Some basic points for this class:

Academic Integrity

The academic community at the University abides by a Code of Academic Integrity. Acts of academic dishonesty include cheating, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, and plagiarism. Activities such as cheating on exams or quizzes, copying homework from a friend or book, allowing your homework or paper to be copied, and submitting forged excuses for absences from exams are violations of this code. If we suspect that an incident of academic dishonesty has occurred, we will turn the case over to the Student Honor Council to investigate and resolve. If the suspected party is judged `responsible' for the act(s) of academic dishonesty, the normal sanction is a course grade of `XF' which denotes failure due to academic dishonesty. This grade is recorded onto the student's academic transcript. The Code of Academic Integrity can be found in the Academic Info section of the Schedule of Classes. It is printed in full in the Undergraduate catalog and on the web at Please refer to this Code if you have further questions about what is construed as academic dishonesty. We are very serious about this.

Class Web Page

The World Wide Web is a very useful resource that we will make use of in this class (e.g., students will be asked to use the internet for some of the questions on the problem sets). The primary web connection for enrolled students is the University's ELMS page found by logging into  If you have difficulty accessing the internet, please discuss this with Prof. Harris before the end of the schedule adjustment period.  In addition, the class site is also a gateway to many other astronomy links, including sites with up-to-date astronomical images that are made available to the public from telescopes in space and on the ground.

Laptop and Mobile Device Policy

In principle, laptops can allow you to take notes faster and access the class website. In practice, they are frequently be used for non-class purposes.  Laptop displays can be very distracting for other students who have a view of your screen.  In this class,  if you use a laptop: 
  1. You must sit in the far back row or on the sides with no one behind you to minimize distractions to other students.
  2. You must turn the sound off and not use headphones.
If, despite these approaches, the use of laptops turns out to be too distracting for the class as a whole, Prof. Harris  may need to ban them entirely.  Let's hope that doesn't happen.

There is no need to use phones or other mobile devices during class, even for texting.  Please refrain.

Special Circumstances

Students with a documented disability should inform Prof. Harris as soon as possible (preferably on the first day of class, and certainly by the end of the schedule adjustment period) so that appropriate academic accommodations can be made.