at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.



at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.

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ASTR 101/3.0 - Astronomy I: The Solar System

Instructor: Dr. Chris Taylor

Course Description

Science and technology have radically changed human culture and our view of the Universe in which we live: so much so, that without some appreciation of science and its origins, we cannot be fully-informed members of modern society. Astronomy provides an excellent example of the scientific method at work, in a field that not only excites the imagination, but also drives beneficial technological innovations (for example in computing, electronics, navigation, and scanner technology).

This course is suitable for any student, but particularly for those without a strong science background, since it is taught mostly descriptively, with only occasional use of basic mathematics. Despite this, the course is not trivial: it conveys a real understanding of the Solar System in particular, and of the Universe in general (since the Solar System cannot be fully comprehended other than in its wider spatial and temporal context).

Expected Learning Outcomes

Students will do the following:

  • Study current knowledge of our Solar System and others, using textbook and on-line material, to understand the nature and evolution of such systems, and their place in the wider Universe.
  • Learn about the history of astronomy, by visiting historical sites, to appreciate how astronomical theories have developed.
  • Observe the night sky, using on-site instruments, to master basic astronomical observation.
  • Assess the broad range of tools and techniques used in modern astronomy, by studying course material and doing an essay on a current or already completed robotic space mission, to evaluate how such tools and techniques have enriched our view of the Universe.
  • Study the development of life on Earth, using textbook and on-line material, to evaluate the prospects for finding life elsewhere.
  • Analyze scientific discourse, by following detailed chains of argument used in astronomy, to enhance skills of critical thinking and logical reasoning.
  • Articulate technical terms and scientific concepts, by answering short summary questions in assignments, to practise the acquisition of specialized vocabularies, and their use in clear and concise written explanations.
Field Studies

There will be an on-site field trip to the Observatory Science Centre ( – now a science education centre, but once an important observatory and research centre. We might also have a guest talk by Dr Graham Appleby, the Director of the Space Geodesy Facility near Bader Hall (

To help stimulate interest in astronomy, some night-sky observation sessions (using a telescope, binoculars, and the naked-eye) will be arranged, giving students more than one opportunity to attend; because of the vagaries of the weather, exact dates cannot be fixed in advance.

A London field trip is planned to the Royal Observatory Greenwich (, which is rich in the history of astronomy: two particular topics related to Greenwich are the "Longitude Problem" (the problem of measuring longitude at sea (for which see the video clip at, and the hunt for the planet Neptune, the existence of which was predicted by Le Verrier in France, and by Adams (who unsuccessfully sought help from Greenwich) in England.

Primary Research Expectations

Since astronomy is highly mathematical and technical, not much research can realistically be done during a non-specialist, general-interest course: however, students will visit two historically important sites: the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London, and the Observatory Science Centre on the BISC estate.

In one of the non-exam assignments, each student will write an investigative essay based on a past or present robotic space mission, with the aim of relating that mission to some of the general themes of the course, and explaining how measurements and analysis arising from that mission have extended astronomical knowledge.


The marks breakdown is as follows:

Questionnaire 1 15%
Essay 20%
Questionnaire 2 15%
Final Exam 40%
Attendance mark 10%