Observational Astronomy


This introductory course is designed to teach beginners and experienced astronomers alike the knowledge, tools, resources, and information necessary to become an adept and competent observational astronomer. While there are many topical sub-disciplines in astronomy, there is a core set of foundational knowledge that all practicing astronomers must master to conduct their work. The first one-third of the course is devoted to providing this basic information to students, which follows with a "practice by doing" approach where students receive real astronomical data of an asteroid and learn how to perform astrometric data reduction. This leads to the production of a report in the proper format for submission to the IAU Minor Planet Center. This reflects the "real world" nature of the course and gives students a deeper understanding of skills necessary to conduct different types of astronomical research. 

This is a 10-week online course that includes weekly, direct contact with the instructor via the InStAR website and/or Skype, PowerPoint presentations that review all course material, online discussions via the InStAR class forum, graded assignments, access to PC-based astrometry software, and a final examination.

Course Goals and Prerequisites

The course is intended for students interested in learning the practical fundamentals of observational astronomy, gaining an understanding of the instrumentation (telescopes and CCD cameras) necessary to conduct basic imaging and scientific research projects, understanding how to calibrate CCD images, and learning how to conduct one basic type of astronomical research project (astrometry). Prerequisite: Although not necessary, students are recommended to have taken an introductory astronomy course at the undergraduate level of instruction.

Course Objectives

By the end of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Understand the motions of the night sky in an astronomical context.

  • Understand the different astronomical coordinate systems and how to use them.

  • Be able to devise and create an effective observing run for an astronomical project.

  • Be able to use a variety of online astronomical resources that aid in developing an observing run plan.

  • Understand the basic operational principles of telescopes, identify the different types of telescopes, be familiar with telescope optical defects, and the most important characteristics that determine a telescope’s optical performance.

  • Understand the basic operational principles of CCD cameras, the different types of CCD cameras, images and the characteristics of images produced from CCD cameras, and CCD image calibration techniques.

  • Understand the theoretical basics of astronomical astrometry, how to conduct an astrometric observing project to detect the motion of an asteroid, how to process the images to define the asteroid’s position in the images, and how to produce a real-world Minor Planet Center (MPC) report.

Sample Syllabus

  • Week 1: Course introduction, introduction to the basic concept and applications of light.

  • Week 2: Astronomical coordinate systems.

  • Week 3: Astronomical coordinate systems and observing run planning.

  • Week 4: Introduction to astronomical images, formats, and uses.

  • Week 5: Telescopes and their characteristics.

  • Week 6: CCD cameras and their characteristics and behaviors; astronomical statistics.

  • Week 7: Introduction to astrometry and astrometric theory.

  • Week 8: Astrometric data reduction and IAU MPC report generation.

  • Week 9: Student time to reduce astrometric data and create MPC report.

  • Week 10: Final Examination.

Textbooks and Software

  1. To Measure the Sky, An Introduction to Observational Astronomy, 2nd edition. Frederick R. Chromey. ISBN 978-1- 107-57256-0.

  2. Handbook of CCD Astronomy, 2nd edition. Steve B. Howell. ISBN 978-0521617628. 

  3. Astrometrica or MPO Canopus, PC-based data reduction software (provided).

  4. FITS image viewers that work on a variety of computer platforms (provided/free).

  5. A variety of additional PDF readings (provided/free).

  6. Practical astronomical images will also be provided.  

Future Course Offerings
  • Dates to be announced