Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe

ASTRO 801 Syllabus


ASTRO 801: Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to 'jump' to a specific section. That said, it is essential that you read the entire document, as well as material covered in the course orientation. Together these serve the role of our course "contract."

Dr. Christopher Palma
Senior Lecturer and Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs
Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics
The Pennsylvania State University
mailing address:  525 Davey Lab  physical office address:  507 Davey Lab
University Park, PA 16802

  • Phone: (814) 865-2255
  • Fax: (814) 863-3399
  • Email: Please use the course inbox in Canvas
  • Other Connection options: Skype ID chrispalma.psu, FaceTime ID
  • Visit my personal website
  • Office Hours: My best effort office hours are Mondays from 2:30 - 3:30pm and Thursdays from 11:00 - 12:30pm, but I am much more frequently available by email and phone, so don't hesitate to try at other times, too. The reason I say best effort is that every semester I end up having 1 or 2 weeks where something I can't get out of conflicts with my office hours. I will try to give at least a few days notice if I can't be available at those times in a given week. I am a Mac User and would be happy to hold office hours or appointments using FaceTime, Skype or similar text / video chatting software.

Course Overview

ASTRO 801: PLANETS, STARS, GALAXIES, AND THE UNIVERSE (3 credits). Overview of the structure, formation, and evolution of planets, stars, galaxies, and the universe.
Prerequisites: None

Observations by modern ground-based and space-based observatories have fueled significant changes in our understanding of the Universe. The Solar System contains only 8 planets but has many thousands of Kuiper Belt Objects, including Pluto. Large area sky surveys have taken inventory of the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and galaxies in the Universe and determined that only 4% of the mass of the universe is found in luminous objects. Besides the mysterious “dark matter,” we now know that the energy budget of the universe is dominated by “dark energy,” which is causing the expansion of the Universe to accelerate. ASTRO 801 is designed specifically for secondary science teachers who seek to enrich their knowledge and bring to their classrooms a contemporary understanding of Earth'’s place in the Universe. ASTRO 801: Planets, Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe will provide you with a strong foundation in astronomy, allowing you to critically evaluate the evidence for the most recent advances in our understanding of the Solar System, our Galaxy, and the Universe.

Astronomers use observations of the light from distant sources to discover the nature of these objects and their environment. ASTRO 801 will lead you to an understanding of light and the instruments for its detection. You will see how careful analysis of these observational data and theoretical models are used to solve the mysteries of the Universe.

ASTRO 801 will combine digital video, audio, simulation models, and the wealth of astronomical imagery from NASA's Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer Great Observatories. You will use highly detailed planetarium software and simulated observing experiences to directly explore the night sky to make the same observations that research astronomers perform in their work.

There are 12 lessons that will be completed at a rate of approximately 1 week per lesson. ASTRO 801 will be conducted entirely on the World Wide Web. There will be no set class meeting times, but students will be required to complete weekly assignments. Each lesson contains interactive exercises, links, animations, movies, and novel explanations of the basic scientific principles related to the objects in the Universe and their environments. Each lesson will conclude with an open book, online assessment, which will rely on a variety of types of exercises. These exercises will include brief math problems and short essay questions, some of which will require additional Internet research to complete. Several simulated lab exercises will also be required, which will allow the students to enrich their understanding of the concepts through inquiry-based, active learning. Each students will also complete a capstone project, where they will use content knowledge and skills to create material for their classrooms. ASTRO 801 students will be granted licenses to use the courseware developed for this course in their own secondary classrooms.

What I expect of you

I expect that you will treat this course in the same manner you would a credit-bearing, face-to-face section of a Master's level course. You should expect to spend the same amount of time on this course that you would spend in and out of class in your other courses. On average, that may be about eight hours per week. However, you will find your workload depends on your familiarity with the technology needed to take an online course and any past experience you have with the astronomy subject matter.

In my experience, the students who reach their goals in online courses are those who are able to motivate themselves to keep up with the coursework and those who take the opportunity to communicate with the instructor and their peers. I encourage you to ask as many questions as you would in a face-to-face class; if you are struggling with any aspect of the course, I can only help you if you ask for help.

Specific learning objectives for each lesson and assignments are detailed within each lesson. The class schedule is published in the CANVAS calendar (the course management system used for this course).

Course Goals and Learning Objectives

The overarching goal of this course is to provide secondary science teachers with the necessary content background to convey the astronomy topics required by mandated state standards. You will be provided with materials for presenting the course content in your classroom and will be granted licenses to use the courseware developed for this course in your own secondary classroom.

Course-Level Learning Objectives
By the end of the course, successful students will be able to

  • critically think about principles of astronomy and astrophysics and apply them in real time;
  • describe the Earth's place in the Solar System, Galaxy, and Universe;
  • describe the scale of the Universe and the relative sizes of the different objects within the Universe;
  • explain how astronomers measure electromagnetic radiation from various sources and use that information to derive an understanding of astronomical objects and phenomena;
  • write reflectively about their learning.

Unit I, Lessons 1-3: Naked Eye Astronomy and the Foundational Physics of Astronomy
By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to

  • identify the objects visible in the night sky to the unaided eye;
  • describe the three dimensional geometry of the Earth and describe the various motions in the sky that result from Earth's rotation and orbit;
  • explain the reason that the Earth experiences seasons;
  • describe the process and appearance of eclipses and the phases of the Moon;
  • interpret the observational evidence for a heliocentric Solar System;
  • quantitatively compare and contrast the shape of the planetary orbits and the relationship between their distance from the Sun and their orbital period;
  • explain why gravity is the force that keeps planets in orbit around the Sun and describe how the orbital properties of an object can be used to determine the mass of the system;
  • describe the different types of electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves to gamma-rays;
  • explain the relationship between the temperature of an ideal radiator and the amount and type of electromagnetic radiation that it will emit;
  • identify the instruments that astronomers use to detect the light from an astronomical object, and explain how to interpret the various methods for displaying a spectrum of light from an object.

Unit II, Lessons 4-7: Stars
By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to

  • classify stars into spectral types and describe the temperatures and luminosities of stars of each type;
  • use the method of trigonometric parallax to measure the distance to a star;
  • construct a temperature-luminosity diagram for stars and explain how stars of different masses, ages, and sizes are represented in the diagram;
  • describe how the Doppler effect is used to calculate the velocity of a star from its spectrum;
  • describe the process by which stars generate energy in their cores;
  • describe the forces that keep stars in a stable equilibrium;
  • qualitatively describe the process of star formation;
  • qualitatively describe the process of evolution for both low mass and high mass stars;
  • compare and contrast the stellar remnants of high and low mass stars;
  • identify the different types of star clusters stars inhabit;
  • compare and contrast the appearance of the temperature luminosity diagrams for different star clusters;
  • describe the process by which astronomers can estimate the age of a star cluster.

Unit III, Lessons 8-10: Galaxies & Cosmology
By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to

  • explain the geometry of the Milky Way and why it appears as a band in the sky as seen from Earth;
  • identify the different stellar populations present in the Milky Way and their distribution within the Galaxy;
  • describe the evidence for a supermassive black hole in the center of the Galaxy;
  • compare and contrast the other galaxies in the Universe using the traditional tuning fork model;
  • qualitatively describe the process by which galaxies evolve;
  • compare and contrast a normal galaxy and an active galaxy;
  • describe the spatial distribution of galaxies within the Universe and the environments in which galaxies reside;
  • quantitatively relate the velocity of a galaxy and its distance using Hubble's Law;
  • describe how Hubble's Law implies an expanding Universe;
  • describe the evidence for the Big Bang as the origin of the Universe and the methods for estimating the age of the Universe;
  • describe the evidence for substantial amounts of dark matter in the Universe;
  • explain how observations of distant objects reveal the Universe is accelerating as it expands.

Unit IV, Lessons 11-12: Planets & Life in the Universe
By the end of the unit, successful students will be able to

  • compare and contrast the interior structure and atmospheres of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars;
  • qualitatively describe the process of tidal locking and relate this phenomenon to Mercury's orbit around the Sun and the Moon's orbit around the Earth;
  • describe the role impacts and collisions had on the evolution of the Inner Solar System planets and the Moon;
  • compare and contrast the terrestrial planets and the Jovian planets;
  • describe the processes for the formation and evolution of ring systems around giant planets;
  • compare and contrast the Moons of the Jovian planets;
  • relate the appearance of the Jovian planets to atmospheric processes;
  • describe the relationship between Pluto and the Kuiper Belt;
  • explain the origin of comets and their distribution in the Solar System;
  • describe the process by which a 'shooting star' appears in the night sky;
  • qualitatively describe the process of planet formation;
  • describe the habitable zone and the likelihood for life to appear on various objects in the Solar System and in other systems;
  • describe how astronomers are searching for signals from other civilizations in the Galaxy.

Required Course Materials

All instructional materials needed for this course are presented online — no textbook is required. Some students do find a textbook a nice resource, however. So if you would like to purchase one, contact me for recommendations. There is also a free online astronomy textbook that I refer to and you may wish to use; it is available at Astronomy Notes.

In order to access the online course materials, you need to have an active Penn State Access Account user ID and password. If you have any questions about obtaining or activating your Penn State Access Account, please contact the World Campus.

In addition, you will need to purchase the following software in order to complete select course assignments:

  • Starry Night Enthusiast: This is available with an education discount through Starry Night's Education Office. Mike Goodman is the direct contact at the Starry Night store, and he has arranged for our class to order the software in the following way:

Your coupon code is: PennState2017 (this is good only for students taking the course during Fall semester 2017 (code updated Aug 2017)

1. Students go to Starry Night Enthusiast.

2. Scroll to the bottom of the page and select Download as the Method of Delivery.

3. Press the Add to cart button.

4. Complete the billing address information.

5. Enter the coupon code and press Apply (this is essential or full price will be charged).

6. Price will adjust for the education discount and should be $49.95.

7. Complete the billing/credit card details.

8. Two emails will be sent to students: a receipt, a download link.

9. Click the link, enter the user name and license key.

While Starry Night Enthusiast will suffice for the purposes of this course, you might consider purchasing one of the following versions instead:

  • Order one of the Starry Night for Educators versions (Elementary, Middle, or High) - See Starry Night Education


Be sure to order Starry Night at the beginning of the course so you will have it in time for the first Starry Night activity.

If you have any questions about your order, obtaining an educator's discount, the differences between the various versions, or buying Starry Night for your school, please call Mike Goodman (Simulation Curriculum Corp.) at the number below. He is very responsive to the needs of educators.

Mike Goodman
Simulation Curriculum Corp.
Phone: 952-653-0493

Assignments and Grading

ASTRO 801 will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning, including

  • automated online quizzes are low stakes and allow you to practice your mastery of the concepts in the lessons;
  • required participation in online discussion groups - your substantive posts on an assigned topic will allow me to gauge your progress and ability to articulate key concepts;
  • laboratory exercises using software simulations - you will investigate several different concepts by taking data, analyzing the data, and reporting your results;
  • a capstone project that will be used to evaluate your knowledge and skills through the production of a learning module that you, in turn, will be able to use to teach course concepts to your own students.

You will earn a grade that reflects the extent to which you achieve the course learning objectives listed above. Grades are assigned by the percentage of possible points earned in each lesson's activities. Below is a breakdown of each lesson's value as a percentage of the total course grade.

Breakdown of each assignment's value as a percentage of the total course grade.
Assignment Percent of Grade
Automated online quizzes: 12 total - top 10 scores will be used to calculate quiz grade 40 %
Required participation in online discussion forums and completing practice problems 10 %
Laboratory exercises - 4 30 %
Capstone Project 20 %

I will use the Canvas gradebook to keep track of your grades. You can see your grades by clicking on Grades from the menu on the left side of the screen in Canvas. Overall course grades will be determined as follows. Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned. This scale may be adjusted downward, if necessary, so that the distribution of letter grades includes all possible grades (that is, if the highest grade in the class is a 91%, that person will receive an A, not an A-)

Letter Grade and Corresponding Percentages
Letter Grade Percentages
A 92 - 100 %
A- 87.5 - 91.9 %
B+ 85 - 87.4 %
B 80 - 84.9 %
B- 77.5 - 79.9 %
C+ 75 - 77.4 %
C 70 - 74.9 %
D 60 - 69.9 %
F < 60 %
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Astro 801 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Below you will find a summary of the learning activities for this course and the associated time frames. This course is 13 weeks in length, beginning with an official orientation week.

Unit I, Lessons 1-3: Naked Eye Astronomy and Foundational Physics of Astronomy
Time Frame Lesson Tasks
Week 1 Course orientation
  • Perform tasks outlined in course orientation to become familiar with the course and the course environment.
  • Post a self-introduction to the course discussion forum.
  • Complete the course background survey. This is ungraded, and the point is to find out about you and get an idea of your comfort level with the various topics we'll cover in the course.
  • Take the course information quiz in order to gain access to the rest of the lessons and content in this course.
  • Purchase, install, and test out Starry Night software.
Week 2 Lesson 1: Motions in the Sky and the 3D Geometry of the Sun, Earth, Moon System
  • Read and use Starry Night and interactive tools to study the basic behavior of the Sun, Earth, and Moon.
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Discuss the appearance of the Moon.
Week 3 Lesson 2: Orbits and the Laws of Kepler and Newton
  • Perform practice problems using Kepler's third law.
  • Begin data collection using Moons of Jupiter simulation.
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
Week 4 Lesson 3: Electromagnetic radiation and Astronomical Observations
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Participate in a discussion about the nature of astronomical experiments.
  • Submit your Moons of Jupiter lab report.
Unit II, Lessons 4-7: Stars
Time Frame Lesson Tasks
Week 5 Lesson 4: The Properties of Stars and Stellar Classification
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Perform practice problems to find distance and velocity of stars.
Week 6 Lesson 5: The Early Stages of Stellar Evolution
  • Begin HR diagram lab exercise.
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Participate in a discussion about binary star evolution.
Week 7 Lesson 6: The Late Stages of Stellar Evolution
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Participate in a discussion about black holes.
Week 8 Lesson 7: Star Clusters
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Submit your HR diagram lab report.
Unit III, Lessons 8-10: Galaxies & Cosmology
Time Frame Lesson Tasks
Week 9 Lesson 8: The Milky Way Galaxy
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Begin Capstone Project.
Week 10 Lesson 9: Galaxies in the Universe
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Begin Galaxy lab exercise.
Week 11 Lesson 10: Cosmology
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Participate in a discussion about the Big Bang.
  • Submit Galaxy lab report.
Unit IV, Lessons 11-12: Planets & Life in the Universe
Time Frame Lesson Tasks
Week 12 Lesson 11: The Solar System
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Begin Extrasolar planets lab.
Week 13 Lesson 12: Life in the Universe
  • Complete a short web quiz on these topics.
  • Submit Extrasolar planets lab report.
  • Participate in a discussion about near Earth objects.
  • Submit Capstone Project.

Tips for Success in ASTRO 801

  • Participate
    In order to make the most of this opportunity, you will need to be actively involved in this course. I think you will find that your discussions with me and with your peers will be as important to your learning as your study of the material presented in the lessons and activities. Discussions offer you the opportunity to organize your thoughts about the astronomy content under discussion, present a logical argument about the topic, and give and receive feedback.
  • Do the work on time
    I see my role in this course as lead facilitator; that is, it is my job to help you achieve your educational objectives. I set deadlines to keep everyone on track to reach those goals. I think that if you do your best to adhere to those deadlines, by, for example, setting up a routine schedule when you work on the course, you will succeed. I do not see deadlines as absolute, though, and am willing to allow students flexibility to submit work late if it is necessary and if I am informed of the reason. If you miss work and you do not inform me until long after the fact, I am unlikely to be lenient, but if I know you will be turning work in late and the reason, I am likely to be lenient. Of course, I also realize emergencies arise that do not present the opportunity to inform me ahead of time, and will make allowances for those situations, as needed.
  • Be professional
    This is a graduate level class, and so I will assume that everyone in the class is an adult and will behave with integrity. I expect that you will not lie or cheat and that you will adhere to all of Penn State's Eberly College of Science policies on academic integrity.

Course Policies

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the Outreach Helpdesk (for World Campus students) or the ITS Help Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Internet Connection

Access to a reliable Internet connection is required for this course. A problem with your Internet access may not be used as an excuse for late, missing, or incomplete coursework. If you experience problems with your Internet connection while working on this course, it is your responsibility to find an alternative Internet access point, such as a public library or Wi-Fi ® hotspot.

Mixed Content

This site is considered a secure web site which means that your connection is encrypted.  We do however link to content that isn't necessarily encrypted.  This is called mixed content.  By default, mixed content is blocked in Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome.  This may result in a blank page or a message saying that only secure content is displayed.  Follow the directions on our technical requirements page to view the mixed content.


This course must be viewed using one of the following browsers: Firefox (any version), Safari (versions 5.1 or 6.0), Chrome (0.3 or later), or Internet Explorer with the MathPlayer PlugIn. If you use any other browser, there will be pages containing equations that do not render properly. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the Outreach Helpdesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from the Penn State World Campus are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Academic Integrity

This course follows the guidelines for academic integrity of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students."

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: Contacts for Disability Resources at all Penn State Campuses. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources (SDR) website.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled. You will participate in an intake interview and provide documentation, see Applying for Services from Student Disability Resources. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation. Services include the following:

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling and Psychological Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Reporting Bias-Motivated Incidents

Penn State takes great pride to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated (Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance) and can be reported through Educational Equity via Report Bias.

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Inclement Weather

In case of weather-related delays at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to weather delays. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information with others whom you do not know.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If, for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days, so it is your responsibility to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances or University approved activities.

If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.


Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. All changes will be communicated with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.