ASTR 150 A: The Planets

Spring 2021
TTh 10:00am - 11:20am / * *
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

Meet Your "Astro 150 Team"

Professor KellySilvestriHeadshot.jpg


  • Nicole Kelly, PhD, Lecturer

 Teaching Assistants & Graders

  • TAs
    • Anika Slizewski
    • Jessica Birky
  • Graders
    • Luke Surber
    • Henry Venter
    • Kole Allison

Please see the Instructor and TA Information page under the Important Course Information for our contact information and office hours.

Covid-19 Information

We are very aware that these are ridiculously difficult times.  We understand that some of you are new to remote learning, may get sick, may be caring for sick relatives or friends, dealing with kids who are home and online for school, juggling work, etc.  As you read through the Syllabus you will see that there is quite a bit of flexibility on assignments, but there are deadlines in place because we do need to get through a minimum amount of material for course credit.  If you find yourself falling behind, unable to complete assignments on time, need help setting up a schedule, etc., please don't hesitate to ask for help!  And, do this early! If things happen in your life that are out of your control, we will do our best to accommodate you and will handle issues on a case-by-case basis.  Your Astro 150 Team is here to help you be successful and enjoy this course.  Let us know when and how we can help!

This course was originally designed to be taught in-person but like every course this year, we have had to move online for everyone's health and safety.  We have run an online version (ASTR 150E) of this course every quarter since 2013, so rest assured, you are in good hands!  There are required Zoom meeting times for both the lectures and sections.  There will be weekly, Zoom office hours and/or Canvas Chat sessions with your TAs and Instructors too so you will have plenty of opportunity to interact real-time. 

All Zoom sessions will be recorded and posted on Canvas after lectures and sections.  Canvas Chat keeps a record of the chat thread, so for those of you unable to attend, you will be able to see and read what you missed.  Look for an announcement or email from your Instructors or TAs regarding any additional the optional Zoom sessions.  Your Astro 150 Team members are also available each week on Zoom or Chat for office hours for individual appointments. 

Course Introduction

Welcome to Astronomy 150: The Planets!

Where did our Solar System come from? What is it made of? Are we alone? What else is 'out there'? These are some of the natural and fundamental questions that humans have been asking since the dawn of time. Given the complexity and diversity of such questions, it is not at all surprising that astronomy itself is a diverse and interesting field of study. Over the next ten weeks we will explore the planets of the Solar System in the hopes of bringing you closer to answering these and, undoubtedly numerous other questions you may already have or will have as we move along in this course.

Whether you are an avid backyard astronomer complete with your own telescope or a complete newbie to astronomy or any science class, I am sure you will enjoy the material in this course. The course is open to all students and there are no prerequisites.  There are some basic concepts that, as intelligent stewards of this planet, I'd like you to leave this course with. By the end of the course, you will be able to answer the following questions:

  • The Geology & Geography of the Planets: What are the basic characteristics of the planets and how do they compare to each other (comparative planetology)?
  • Solar System Formation: What gives rise to the great diversity of worlds in our solar system? What can this tell us about how the Solar System formed?
  • Solar System Evolution: How did the Solar System get to or evolve to its current state? Where is it headed in the near and distant future?
  • Life in the Universe and Exoplanets: What do we understand about life in our own Solar System? Can we apply this to other stellar systems? What can be said about life and its distribution throughout the galaxy and the universe?

Course Objectives

After completing this course, students will be able to

  • Recognize and describe the basic characteristics of terrestrial and Jovian planets.
  • Outline and describe the physical mechanisms that give rise to the great diversity of worlds in our solar system.  Predict how these mechanisms have influenced the formation and evolution of our own Solar System.
  • Discuss how the Solar System arrived at or evolved to its current state. Determine where the Solar System is headed in the near and distant future.
  • Summarize what we currently understand about life in our own Solar System and apply this understanding to other stellar systems. Discuss the implications of this knowledge with respect to life and its distribution throughout the galaxy and the Universe.  


What you can expect from your Instructor and TAs:

Each module has been designed to tell a part or a chapter in some sense, of a story. That story is a fascinating one that will take the full 10 weeks to tell. It is one about how the Solar System came to be organized as we see it today, which, to foreshadow a bit, is a story about star formation and about how life came to be on this planet and perhaps how it might evolve on others.

Presentations will be given for each lesson module on the Canvas site. I encourage you to print the PDF versions out and bring them with you to office hours if you have questions and to take notes. As you will see, the slides themselves will not be a sufficient substitute for reading the text and doing the additional research on related sites that will be given, so be sure to keep up with those as well. 

This is a survey course, therefore I do not assume or require that you have a scientific or mathematical background. That being said, I will expect you to do some simple algebra in your head (you can balance your checkbook and multiply 4x4, right?). You will need to know how to use a scientific calculator and a basic spreadsheet program (e.g. Open Office, MS Office, Google Sheets/Docs, etc. See the Technology Requirements section below).

If you do not know how to use these tools or do not have access to them, please make a point of speaking with me or your TA as soon as possible so we can help you get started.

What we will expect from you:

Your Astro 150 Team's job this quarter is to help you be successful in this class. We cannot do that alone. You must put in effort too. As I said above, I expect that you keep up with the material presented in each module every week and participate in groups and discussions. It's that simple. As you will see, several short assignments and quizzes will be given each week. Put in constant weekly effort and you will be very successful! Take advantage of my time and your TA's time. That's what we are here for!

Success in this class hinges upon your commitment to participate and complete the assignments every week of the quarter. Many of the people who choose this course have jobs or other commitments that make attending in-person classes difficult, but you must still commit to completing the assignments in a way that works with both your schedule and the course's, and ideally gives you enough time to get help when you need it. I do not accept late assignments, but your TAs may be more lenient. Speak with them if you are having trouble completing assignments on-time and workout a plan. This course moves quickly through material, so I do not generally allow registrations beyond the first week of classes.  

Technology Requirements

You will need a reliable and reasonably high-speed connection to the Internet and a calculator with a scientific mode setting.

Note that the images in the Canvas page may not display in Safari.   You may want to participate in live Zoom meetings so you'll need reliable high-speed internet to participate on video. Please see

for more information on connecting to Zoom.

Occasionally it may be useful to compose or edit assignments outside of the Canvas framework.  You have the option to submit assignments in the following formats: pdf, doc, docx, txt, & jpeg. Other formats generally do not work within Canvas.  It is your responsibility to check your submissions to ensure they can be viewed or downloaded properly within the Canvas course. 

As UW students you have access to both Microsoft Office 365 and the Google G-Suite of applications.  Please refer to

for more information about the suite of applications available to you for your studies.

Required Materials

Please refer to the Textbook page for more information on the textbook requirements.   In addition to the textbook, you are responsible for the information presented on the course's Canvas site, including Announcements and messages sent to you via Canvas/email. 

Course Elements & Assessment

All materials presented in lectures and sections, assignments and text readings will be made available on our Canvas course pages.  Please refer to these each week for new assignments, readings and materials.   

All in-lecture assignments, activities, reading summaries and lesson quizzes are due each Monday at 11;59pm.  Group discussions are due one day earlier on Sundays at 11:59pm.

Lecture Classes & Participation 

There will be two 80min synchronous 'lecture' classes each week.  My goal, which may vary slightly from class-to-class, is to lecture on a particular topic for no more than 30-45min.  The lecture may be broken into smaller chunks throughout the class period or given in one presentation.  Regardless, there will usually be one or more activities related to the topic which you will participate in during the lecture.  The activities can take many forms, but will typically involve one or more of the following:

  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Reflection Summary
  • Muddiest Point Question
  • Q&A with a "clicker"
  • Partner Paper activity (lists, diagrams, etc.)

Some of these activities may need to be submitted at the end of the lecture or later in the week for credit, but are mainly for you to asses how much you are learning and where you may have some confusion.  

Reading Summaries

As good citizens and stewards of this planet, I'd like you to be aware of what is going on in science and technology in the world. We live in really stunning times - we (the scientific communities of the world) just landed another rover an lander on Mars and a probe just did a flyby of an icy Kuiper Belt object; we have several exciting missions in progress to a variety of different worlds in our solar system and a whole slew of other projects in the works. It's your tax dollars hard at work, so you'll likely want to be aware of how we scientists are spending that money!

Almost every week you will be responsible for having read one news article from astronomy-related sources (the list of appropriate web sources can be found under each assignment). You will prepare a written summary of the article you read which should include at least two questions that the article left you wondering about. You will submit your summaries each week under the appropriate discussion board on Canvas.  

Late submissions will receive 1/3 credit per day off, zero credit thereafter.  Missed submissions will result in a zero grade. Your lowest reading summary grade will be dropped.

Group Discussions & Section Participation

Participation is a requirement for this course.  The Canvas Discussions platform will be used for online discussion about class topics and assignments. It has been shown that learning outcomes are better when students are encouraged to interact with each other in small groups.  Since this is now an online class and you don't have any in-person contact with your fellow students, so online discussions are particularly useful and important in the learning process. 

You will be working in small groups (5-6 students in your section) for most of these discussions.  Sections meet once a week (Mon or Wed) for 50 minutes. The TAs receive instructions and/or rough guidelines for what is to be covered in sections weekly from me, but otherwise they are left to run their sections as they wish with almost complete autonomy.  

Each week you will receive some additional lesson information from your TAs in sections and will start a group discussion that is tied closely to a collaborative activity which emphasizes specific learning goals from each weekly lesson module.  

All material presented in sections is important to your understanding of the course material and you will be tested on this material so it is equally important that you attend both lectures and sections with regularity.  If you are in need of some extra credit, attending lectures and sections with regularity is encouraged.  You can earn up to 5 points on your midterm and final exams with regular attendance and participation.

Credit for the group discussions will be based on the timeliness, frequency and relevance of your posts. The more you participate and post, the better you will do in this course as the discussions will usually be closely tied to the topics, assignments, and learning goals each week.  You will also see questions on the exams based on these discussion topics.  Exceptional discussion contributions may earn extra credit as well. 

Before you start posting, be sure to read the Group Discussion Guidelines.  If your post doesn’t follow the guidelines, there is a chance it will be removed and you won’t receive points for that discussion.

You must participate throughout each week outside of your section for full credit. All group discussions count towards your course grade. No group discussions will be dropped. 

Lesson Activities

Almost every week your TA will introduce an activity in sections which emphasizes a specific learning goal from that week's lesson module.   Most weeks, the activity is closely tied to the group discussion so you will be working on them closely with your group.  These assignments have been selected to be closely related to or augment in some meaningful way, the current week’s course material.  

Late submissions will receive 1/3 credit per day, zero credit thereafter.  Missed submissions will result in a zero grade. All lesson activities count towards your course grade. No lesson activities will be dropped.

Online Quizzes

There will be a weekly online lesson quiz, consisting of 20-25 multiple choice questions. The quiz will be based on the material presented in the weekly lesson modules, activities and required textbook readings. 

You are allowed 2 attempts for each quiz with the high score being recorded as the final grade.  Correct answers will be revealed after your second attempt. If you miss an online quiz, you will not have access to the answers and will need to contact a member of your Astro 150 Team for the answers after the quiz closes.

Missing an online quiz will result in a zero grade.  Your lowest quiz grade will be dropped. 


There will be two online exams.  The first exam, the Mid-Quarter Review Quiz, is really just a longer lesson quiz that covers all of the material presented in the first 5 lesson modules (5 weeks) of the course.  As with the lesson quizzes, you will be allowed 2 attempts, however the Mid-Quarter Review Quiz will not be dropped.

The second exam is the Final Exam.  It is both optional and cumulative with heavy emphasis on the material presented after Lesson Module 5.  You have two options for the Final Exam:

Option 1: If you are happy with your cumulative course grade at the end of the 10-week quarter, after all assignments have been graded, you may choose to not take the Final Exam and use that grade instead as your Final Exam grade. In other words, your course grade will not change with the inclusion of the Final Exam grade.

Option 2: If you would like to try and raise your cumulative course grade, you may attempt to take the Final Exam.  If your Final Exam grade is higher than your cumulative course grade, after all assignments have been graded, your exam grade will be factored into your course grade.  If your exam grade is lower than your cumulative course grade, your cumulative course grade will be used as your final exam grade.  In other words, if you choose to take the exam and don't do as well as you hoped, you won't lower your course grade by giving it a try.

The Final Exam will cover all of the material presented in each module, including the textbook readings and group discussions. The format of the exams will usually consist of some combination of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer questions.

If you know you are going to miss either exam for an excused reason please read the Exam Information  page for more information. Your Astro 150 team will attempt to accommodate your schedule, if possible. If you encounter a last minute unforeseen issue (e.g. "I’m having my appendix out" or "I got called into Jury Duty"), the issue will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

It is not possible to take an exam after the scheduled date/time windows unless prior accommodations have been made with your instructor (see above). No Exam grades will be dropped.

About The Lessons

Week 01: Numbers, Vocabulary and the Lunar Surface

Week 02: The History and Origin of the Moon

Week 03: The Surfaces and Exploration of Mercury and Mars

Week 04: The Surface of Venus and Terrestrial Atmospheres

Week 05: Earth and Life – How Impacts Have Shaped Them (and Midterm)

Week 06: Meteorites, Asteroids, and the Asteroid Belt

Week 07: Giant Planet Satellites – Dead Worlds, Rinds, and Recently Active Worlds

Week 08: Active Worlds – The Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, and the Comet Connection

Week 09: Giant Planet Atmospheres and the Origin of the Solar System

Week 10: Extra-Solar Planets and Life in the Universe


Evaluation & Grading


Component % of Total
Reading Summaries 10
Group Discussions 30
Lesson Activities 30
Lesson & Mid-Quarter Quizzes 10
Final Exam 20

Your assignment submissions and exams will be graded by the graders and TAs with suggested point values and rubrics designed by the instructors.  Weekly lesson quizzes will automatically be graded by Canvas.  The answers to quizzes and assignments will be made available in the following week's lesson module. 

This course is graded on the 4.0 scale (not C/NC). The final percentile score (out of 100) in the Canvas gradebook is converted to the 4.0 scale upon submission to the registrar. Your minimum estimated GPA for the course is listed in the gradebook at the very top right of your view of the gradebook using the following anchor points: 

  • 4.0: grade >= 97%
  • 3.1: grade = 80%
  • 2.0: grade = 70%
  • 0.7: grade >= 60%
  • 0.0: grade < 60%

The cut for credit in this course is 60% (0.7). These anchor points vary slightly from quarter to quarter.

Please Note: Think carefully if you are considering taking this class as S/NS. As an undergraduate, you need a 2.0 (~70%) to receive an S (satisfactory) for the class.  As of Spring Quarter 2020, the S/NS guidelines have changed to accommodate the Covid19 precautions.  We are following these guidelines until further notice:

Academic Integrity & Conduct

Written Work

Cheating/plagiarizing is obviously not tolerated. You will be allowed and encouraged to work with other members of the class, but all of your assignments must be your own original work, in your own words, and/or using proper citations.

We will be using the standard plagiarism checker (SimCheck by TurnItIn) within Canvas on most assignments.  SimCheck will automatically produce originality reports for assignments in this class. The SimCheck Report will indicate the amount of original text in your work and whether all material that you quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or used from another source is appropriately referenced. Please refer to this site for more information on SimCheck: to an external site.

The University takes academic integrity very seriously. Behaving with integrity is part of our responsibility to our shared learning community. If you’re uncertain about if something is academic misconduct, ask your instructors. We are willing to discuss questions you might have.

Acts of academic misconduct may include, but are not limited to:

  • Cheating (working collaboratively on quizzes/exams and discussion submissions, sharing answers and previewing quizzes/exams)
  • Plagiarism (representing the work of others as your own without giving appropriate credit to the original author(s))
  • Unauthorized collaboration (working with each other on assignments or exams)

Concerns about these or other behaviors prohibited by the Student Conduct Code will be referred for investigation and adjudication by Community Standards & Student Conduct (;

Audio, Video, & Recordings

Misuse or abuse of any recorded content is also prohibited under the student conduct code.  Screenshots of instructors or other students during active Zoom participation sessions are strictly forbidden.  Re-posting or altering of video, still, or recorded images is also strictly forbidden.  Any student caught engaging in this behavior will automatically be referred to the Community Standards and Student Conduct ( representatives for review and consequences as determined by their findings.  

The University of Washington Student Conduct Code (WAC 478-121) defines prohibited academic and behavioral conduct and describes how the University holds students accountable as they pursue their academic goals. Allegations of misconduct by students may be referred to the appropriate campus office for investigation and resolution. More information can be found online at

UW Library Services

As a UW student, you have access to a wealth of online resources compiled to provide fast, easy access to information that supports your learning experience. Organized by subject, UW Library Services links you to sites with help for writing and research, study skills, language learning, and library reference materials. All links have been assessed for credibility and reliability, and they are regularly monitored to ensure their usability.

Access and Disability Accommodation

Your experience in this class is important to me. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), please communicate your approved accommodations to me at your earliest convenience so we can discuss your needs in this course.

If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), you are welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924 or or DRS offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and/or temporary health conditions.  Reasonable accommodations are established through an interactive process between you, your instructor(s) and DRS.  It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law.

Religious Accommodation

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request Form.

About the Instructor

Nicole Kelly is an observational astronomer specializing in the evolution of binary systems, primarily those comprised of a low mass star and a white dwarf. Kelly arrived at UW for her first post-doctoral position in January 2003 to work with Dr. Suzanne Hawley, after completing her dissertation work at the Florida Institute of Technology. Kelly’s research at the UW utilizes photometry and spectroscopy from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to identify and investigate the properties of white dwarf and M dwarf stars in close binary (pre-Cataclysmic Variable) systems. Kelly has been a member of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Project and is currently lecturing full time in the Astronomy Department.  In her spare time she enjoys keeping up with her daughter and husband and also enjoys kickboxing, hiking, backpacking, SUP and generally playing in our the Pacific Northwest backyard.



Catalog Description:
For liberal arts and beginning science students. Survey of the planets of the solar system, with emphases on recent space exploration of the planets and on the comparative evolution of the Earth and the other planets. Offered: AWSpS.
GE Requirements Met:
Natural Sciences (NSc)
Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning (QSR)
Last updated:
May 18, 2024 - 8:50 pm