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AST 103: The Solar System

Course Overview

Hi! Welcome to AST 103, The Solar System. This page will give you some basic information about the course.

Course Description

This course will cover roughly the first half of our textbook. The two main themes are the historical development of astronomy and the solar system.

The purpose of the first theme is not to turn this course into a history course. Rather it is to use astronomy as a case study to help you understand scientific methodology. The steps in the scientific method do not always apply in real life in the idealized way that they are stated in textbooks. Studying the history of astronomy will help you understand how science really works and see the difference between science and things that are not science.

The second theme of the course is our understanding of the solar system. You will study the structure and properties of the various planets in our solar system as well as the Sun. Since the advent of the space program, the ability to send robotic probes to other planets has tremendously increased our knowledge of the solar system. This study relates to the universal questions of our origins. How did Earth and the solar system get here?


I will assume that you have a good basic high school science background but no prior knowledge of astronomy. I will also assume that you want to learn about astronomy and are willing to work very hard to do so.

Required Textbook

See course description for an up-to-date list of materials.

Study Tips

One crucial skill that you need to do well in an online course is to be able to read the textbook effectively. Reading a science textbook is not like reading a novel, so if you do not already know how to read a science book, you need to learn how to do so. You must read the assigned readings more than once.

The first time you read an assigned reading, do not try to read every word. Rather, the goal of the first reading should be to build a framework in your mind (or to take notes and build your framework on paper). Build an outline of the big picture by reading the learning outcomes at the beginning of the chapter. You should also read the main subject headings and the review points at the end of the chapter, but you should just skim the content in between. Remember, during the first reading, your goal is not to worry about every detail but to get a feel for the big picture and to build the framework for the forthcoming details.

The second time you read an assigned reading, you should read more carefully. Think about how each section fits into the big picture. If there is something that you don’t completely understand, don’t worry too much about it yet. Just mark your questions for future reference. If you own the book, do not hesitate to write useful notes in the margin.

After you’ve completed the second reading of the text, read my discussions and any other assigned readings. Pay special attention to things in the text that you did not understand. Then go back and read the text again to try to comprehend the things that you did not understand at first. If there is something that you still don’t understand, then you should e-mail me to ask your question.

After completing the readings, give yourself this simple self-quiz. Answer three questions:

  1. What did I learn from the reading?
  2. What do I still do not understand?
  3. How can I connect the things that I learned to something else--in this course, another course, or my daily life?

This quiz is not to be turned in. It is simply to help you organize your learning. The first question will reinforce what you learned. The second question will help you articulate what you still need to work on. The third question will help you transfer what you learned from short-term to long-term memory, so you won’t forget it when you take the exam (we hope!).

Another step to take after you complete the readings is to do the self-help activities in the lesson. They are not to be turned in; they are designed to help you master the course material.

Finally, complete the written assignments to submit for grading. These assignments are open book. You may use the textbook, any assigned readings, and any notes you took while doing the reading or the self-help activities. You are, however, on your honor to do the assignments yourself.

If at any time during this process you are confused about the course concepts, e-mail me with your question.


Assigned Readings

The primary resource for this course will be your textbook and assigned readings from the Internet.

Your Instructor

As your instructor, I am also an important resource. If you have read the assigned readings and still don’t understand something, do not hesitate to e-mail me to ask me your question. I will do my best to answer your question in a way that you understand. One of the difficulties of e-mail as compared to face-to-face communication is that I cannot see the visual cues from your face that tell me you are understanding my answer to you. So if my answer does not help, e-mail me again and ask for further clarification. Don’t feel that you are bothering me by asking questions; it is part of my job to provide answers and help you master the course material.

Online Resources

Mostly as a hobby, I write for a Web magazine called Suite101.com. Many of your supplemental readings are articles that I have written for this site. To find more of my articles on topics you want to read more about, look under “science and nature” and choose the subtopics “physics” and “astronomy.” If you want to enjoy the night sky, astronomy feature writer Kelly Whitt writes many articles about what is up in the night sky. Her work is reliable, and you can trust what you read in her articles. For articles by other writers, check the author’s biography to verify that he or she has the credentials to be knowledgeable about the topic.

Astronomynotes.com by Nick Strobel is an online college astronomy textbook. If a reading in our textbook confuses you, this site is a good additional text to read. The author is generous enough to make this work available for free to anybody. There is, however, a place on the site where people who find the work useful can make voluntary donations to the author.

Library Resources

Students enrolled in Self-paced Courses Online have access to the UNC Library System. Visit Distance Education Library Services to access a wide array of online services and resources including online databases, online journals, online books, and live help with research and library access.

If you have a UNC Onyen and password, you will need to enter that to access the resources. If you do not have an Onyen, enter your PID. If you do not know your PID, you can find it here. If the library site does not recognize your PID, contact Janice Durham and ask her to have you added to the library’s database.

If you have any trouble finding the resource that you need or logging in to a resource, contact the library using the contact information at Distance Education Library Services. You can chat live about your problem or send an e-mail to request assistance.


Graded Assignments

This course has thirteen modules, and eleven of the modules have graded assignments. The assignments will be graded on a scale of 10 possible points. Note that the Module 10 assignment contains two distinct parts, so that assignment will be graded on a scale of 20 possible points. I will compute a percentage average for these assignments as part of your final course grade.

Final Exam

There will also be a final exam for this course. It will be a 100-question multiple-choice format exam. Each question will count 1 point for a total of 100 points. You must pass the final exam in order to pass the course. To give you a feel for what to expect, there will be an ungraded, shorter, practice final exam as part of the last module.

The final exam must be scheduled and supervised. You should schedule your exam with the Self-paced Courses office. Exams to be taken at the Friday Center should be scheduled at least one week prior to the exam date; requests for exams to be taken elsewhere should arrive at the Self-paced Courses office at least two weeks prior to the exam date.

Course Grade

I will determine your course grade by counting the average for your assignments as 75 percent and your final exam score as 25 percent of the final grade. I will use the following 10-point scale:

80-89% B
70-79% C
60-69% D
0-59% E

Extra Credit Opportunity

Observing the sky is not a requirement for this course because it is hard to do without special equipment. However, observing the sky is an important component of astronomy, so I will award some extra credit to students who are able to observe the sky.

Occasionally, local astronomy clubs, universities that have observatories, or public observatories offer star parties or other opportunities to observe the sky. If you attend one of these events or if you have access to a telescope or binoculars (your own or a friend’s), you can turn in observations for extra credit. For each object you observe, write a one-paragraph description. Include the name of the object you observed, the telescope you used, the location or observatory from which you made the observation, the time and date of the observation, and a detailed description of the object you observed. When you complete an observation, turn it in with your next assignment. I will add one point to the grade for that assignment for each object you observe, up to a maximum of five total points for the course.

Academic Honesty Policy

Cheating: If I catch you, you fail. Period.

All work done in this course is bound by Western Carolina University’s Academic Honesty Policy. The assignments for each module are open book, but you must do your own work. You may discuss the material with other people, but write the answers yourself. The final exam is closed book.

Plagiarism is strictly forbidden. Please read the items below and make sure you understand how to avoid plagiarism.

If you have any questions about whether your usage of sources is acceptable, please contact me.

Course Mechanics


Notify both me and Janice Durham at the Friday Center if your email address changes.

If you use a spam filter on your e-mail account, you are responsible for ensuring that it does not prevent you from receiving messages from me or the Friday Center staff.

Submitting Assignments

Submit your assignments by using the “Submit Assignment” button located in the assignment section of each module. This button opens an email message that is pre-addressed to me and Student Services. This is important because the assignment must be sent both to me and to Student Services in order to get credit for your work. The pre-addressed email also contains a subject line identifying that particular submission.

It is extremely important for you to save copies of any work you send to me via email. If I don’t receive your work, you must have a duplicate copy. It is your responsibility to maintain copies of your sent emails, as there is no way to guarantee that any email message will be delivered.

Please check your email software to see how it manages sent and saved messages. Some software automatically deletes messages one month after they have been sent; others only save messages if they are filed in folders; others save messages received but not those sent. You may need to send yourself a copy of your emailed assignment at the same time you send it to me, or you may need to print a copy of the email message and any attachments to keep in your paper files. No matter how your system works, make sure you know how to save a copy of all work that you submit to me and that you save the copy for several months beyond the end of the course.

Other Questions

Contact me if you have questions about the course content or your progress (my email link is at the top of every module page). Please include “SPC AST 103” in the subject line of your email.

Contact the instructional designer for this course at the Friday Center about problems with this Web site, especially regarding links that are not working.

If you have any questions about enrollment, Onyen, credits, withdrawal, and so on, contact the Student Services staff at the Friday Center (phone 919-962-1134 or 800-862-5669).

How to Begin

The course schedule is up to you. You can complete the course in as few as twelve weeks or take as long as nine months.

Since this course is not held in a classroom, I may never meet you in person. Still, I would like to know something about you so that I can associate each email message from you with something more than a name. Therefore, your first task is to send me a Personal Information Sheet: To do this, save this Word Document to your hard drive (or copy and paste from this Web page into your word processing program), fill it out, and attach it to an email to me. This also gives us a chance to make sure our lines of communication are working.

When you have reviewed the information on this syllabus, click on the Module 1 link below. Look over the module’s objectives, complete the assigned reading in the textbook, read my discussion section, and complete the self-help activity. When you are prepared, complete the written assignment. Be sure to follow the instructions for submitting your assignment.

That will be the procedure for each module in the course.

Enjoy your journey through the solar system!


The links to the modules are in the left sidebar of Sakai.

Most students will want to complete the modules in order. That will most closely follow the order of the textbook. However it is not absolutely essential to follow this order. For example, if you are really eager to get to the material on the planets, you can do those modules first and then complete the modules on the historical development of astronomy. That alternate order would be Module 1, then Modules 9-13, then Modules 2-8.

Module 1 Introduction; The Scale of the Universe
Module 2 Ancient Observations of the Night Sky
Module 3 Ancient Greek Models
Module 4 Renaissance Astronomy and the Heliocentric Model
Module 5 Newton’s Physics
Module 6 Spectra and Spectroscopy
Module 7 Telescopes
Module 8 Einstein’s Relativity
Module 9 Earth
Module 10 The Terrestrial Planets
Module 11 The Jovian Planets
Module 12 The Origin of the Solar System
Module 13 The Sun
Final Exam Schedule your exam with the Self-paced Courses office. See Module 13 for details.
Please fill out the Course Evaluation. We value your input!

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Send comments and questions to fridaycenter@unc.edu.