ASTR 150 E: The Planets

Autumn 2022
to be arranged / * *
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

Meet Your "Astro 150 Team"

Instructor: Prof. Cisneros

Instructor: Prof. Kelly




  • Sophia Cisneros, Lecturer
  • Nicole Kelly, Lecturer

Teaching Assistants & Graders

  • TAs
    • Rain Borges
    • Daniel Lopez
    • Thomas Do
  • Graders
    • Josue Torrez
    • Jack Ford

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


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 breadth 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, we are 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, we'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.  


IMPORTANT: This course is completely online and asynchronous. This is no way means this course is easier than a typical 5-credit in-person course at the UW.  Online courses can actually be more challenging because you will need to be much more self-motivated and disciplined in your weekly studies.  You will be expected to participate in weekly discussions and complete assignments throughout each week as you would in a typical in-person course. 

The amount of effort expected of a 5-credit course is that for every "one contact hour" students should be spending a minimum of two hours on the material.  This means that for a 5-credit online course, your "5 contact hours" are the time spent reviewing the weekly lecture videos, reading the required articles, and reviewing the videos by the TAs for the weekly lesson activities.  After you have completed those tasks, you will then need to participate in weekly discussions, complete assignments, and review the materials.  Most weeks this will certainly take less than 10 hours every week but you should schedule your time assuming that you will need that much time.

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 stated above, we expect you to keep up with the material presented in each module every week, participate in groups and discussions and submit assignments in a timely fashion. It's that simple. As you will see, several short assignments  will be given each week and you have an entire week to complete them.  If you setup a schedule, stick with it, and put in constant weekly effort and you will be very successful! Take advantage of our time too. 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, kids, 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 due dates, and ideally gives you enough time to get help when you need it.  This course moves quickly through material, therefore we do not allow registrations beyond the first week of classes.

We are very aware that these are still challenging times.  We understand that some of you may get sick, may be caring for sick relatives or friends, dealing with kids who are home, 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.  

This course was originally designed 10 years ago to be an asynchronous and online course.  We have run this course every quarter online since then, so rest assured, you are in good hands!  

Required Materials

There is no textbook so you are only responsible for the information presented on the course's Canvas site, including required online reading articles, Announcements and messages sent to you via Canvas/email. 

Technology Requirements

You will need a reliable and reasonably high-speed connection to the Internet and the ability to connect remotely to the Canvas course.  You may want to meet with a member of your Astro 150 Team for office hours or help in live Zoom meetings.  If so, you'll need reliable high-speed internet connection.  Please see

for more information on connecting to Zoom and also the Important Canvas Settings , Accessibility, & Technology Support page for additional information.

Canvas works best with the Google Chrome or Firefox. Firefox is the recommended browser but I've never had an issue using Chrome.  I'm told the Microsoft Edge browser also works well.  Safari is also good but please note that the images in the Canvas pages may not display properly (or at all) in Safari.  If images are not displaying for you, you please try a different browser before contacting your Astro 150 Team or contacting UW IT.

Occasionally it may be useful to compose or edit assignments outside of the Canvas framework.  You also  have the option to hand in some assignments in different formats. 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.

There are no official or required in-person meeting times nor are there required Zoom sessions to attend. 

Communicating with Your Instructors, TAs and Peers

Make sure you read Instructor and TA Information and Important Canvas Settings pages before you begin with the course.  All course-related email will receive a reply usually within 24hrs. Meetings with TAs and instructors are available on platforms such as Canvas Chat or UW Zoom.  

Online Discussion Forums allow you to communicate with other currently enrolled students and with your instructor and TA. We encourage you to use the General Discussion Forum to exchange ideas, resources, and comments about your coursework with other students in this course. This forum is monitored by your instructional team. You can use Canvas email to ask the instructor/TA questions but, if the topic would be of general interest, post your question on the General Discussion Forum

Course Elements & Assessment

Please note that our primary form of communication with students will be on Canvas in the form of announcements on the Announcements list, through Canvas email, or in the comments sections on your individual assignments and related discussion boards.

All deadlines and due dates for reading summaries, activities, quizzes and exams are clearly listed with each assignment and will show up in your Canvas Calendar. Any changes will be sent as Canvas Announcements. Please either make a habit of checking Canvas for announcements or set your Canvas preferences to email your UW email account with daily or immediate summaries. Either make a habit of reading your email account or forward it to one that you read often. 

Please be aware that you cannot edit or delete your posts in discussion assignments so please be thoughtful in your posts and responses. If you cannot live with a mistake you've made in a post, you may email your TA or instructor for help.  Please refrain from posting blank, partial, or nonsense posts as these will result in a zero grade.  

Reading Summaries

As good citizens and stewards of this planet, we'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) landed another rover on Mars, a probe on a comet and a new probe to "touch" the Sun; we have several exciting missions in progress to different worlds in our solar system and a whole slew of other projects in the works. If that's not exciting to you, then in a very practical sense, it's your tax dollars hard at work, so you'll likely want to be aware of how scientists are spending your money! 

Almost every week you will be responsible for having read one news article from an astronomy-related source. You will prepare a written summary of the article you read and submit your summaries each week under the appropriate module/assignment on Canvas.  Your Astro 150 team will attempt to answer questions on the readings in a timely manner so feel free to start a dialogue with us on them!

The list of appropriate web sources can be found under each assignment along with detailed instructions and due dates.  

Late submissions will receive 1/3 credit per day off, zero credit thereafter.  Missing submissions after this will receive a zero grade. Your lowest reading summary grade will be dropped.

Group Discussion 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 an asynchronous, online class, you don't have any in-person contact with your fellow students, so online discussions are particularly useful and important in the learning process. 

Your participation in these discussions will count towards your final grade.  You will be working in small groups (~10-12 students) for most of these discussions.  

Credit for the 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.  One of the few opportunities for extra credit in this course may be given for exceptional discussion posts that exceed the minimum requirements. 

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 for full credit.  There is a 3-day minimum for participation in all discussions.

Missing or late submissions will receive a zero grade if submitted after the due date.  All group discussions count towards your course grade. No group discussions will be dropped and participation after the due date is not allowed.

Lesson Activities

Almost every week you will be assigned an activity which emphasizes a specific learning goal from that week's lesson module.   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.  Missing submissions after the due date, will receive 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. 

Missing online quizzes or quizzes submitted after the due date will receive a zero grade.  Your lowest quiz grade will be dropped. 

Midterm & Final Exams

There will be two online exams.  The Midterm covers all of the material presented in the first 5 lesson modules (5 weeks) of the course. The Final Exam is cumulative with heavy emphasis on the material presented after the Lesson Module 5.  The Final Exam will cover all of the material presented in each module, including the required  readings and group discussions. The format of the exams will usually consist of short-answer essay questions (questions requiring 15 sentences or less to answer).

The tentative exam dates are given HERE.  If you are going to miss either exam for an excused reason please let your instructors know immediately. We 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 in to 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). Both exams count toward your course grade. 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 [weeks 4 & 5 are combined for Summer Qtr]

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 & the Origin of the Solar System

Week 10: Extrasolar Planets & Life in the Universe



% of Total

Reading Summaries


Group Discussions


Lesson Activities


Weekly Lesson Quizzes


Midterm (10%) & Final Exam (15%)


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%) is displayed in the Canvas gradebook and will be converted to the 4.0 scale upon submission to the registrar with the typical average grade of 80% receiving around a 3.1. Higher and lower grades scale accordingly.  The cut for credit for this course is 60% (0.7). Grades around 97% or higher typically receive a 4.0, though these anchor points vary slightly from quarter to quarter.   Your minimum estimated GPA for the course is listed in the gradebook at the very top right of your view of the gradebook.

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 this way.  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

Treat Instructional Staff & Fellow Students with Respect - Some Guidelines to Follow

Although our classroom environment is virtual (asynchronous online), the standards of behavior are as important as they are in the in-person classrooms at UW. In other words, our online class is a real classroom with real instructors, teaching assistants and graders. Therefore, appropriate student behavior is expected.  Below are some general rules for behavior in this online course:

  • Students should address all course members as adults with the courtesy expected for education professionals. Unless otherwise instructed, students are to use both the appropriate title, preferred pronouns, and last name of the instructor when interacting with the instructors. Please ask your TAs how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Students should phrase communications with instructors and TAs in a polite and courteous manner appropriate for speaking to adults. The tone of emails, chat messages, Zoom conferences, phone conversations and comments on assignments must be respectful.
  • Since our online environment is a learning environment, students should not use excessive slang, shorthand, emojis or language that they might use in other environments. Students must communicate with instructors and TAs in complete sentences.
  • Students are not to use obscene, profane, threatening, or disrespectful language or images in any communications, discussion boards, chat or Zoom meetings.
  • Students must use a profile picture and Zoom video background that is appropriate for an educational environment. The course instructors reserve the right to determine if a profile picture or Zoom background is inappropriate. Students using an inappropriate profile picture or Zoom background will be required to update their settings.
  • All communications with other students enrolled in this course must be of a course-related nature. Any sending of unsolicited email or chat messages to classmates is prohibited.
  • All communications with other students in any forum, course-related email, group discussion post, etc., must be polite, courteous and respectful.
  • The integrity and authenticity of student work is something that we take seriously and check using a variety of technologies (see below). Copying the work of others, allowing others to knowingly copy your work, and/or misusing content from the Internet could result in removal from our courses with a failing grade. Students are expected to abide by the Academic Integrity Policy that is accepted as part of your enrollment at the UW.
  • Students are not to use obscene, profane, threatening, or disrespectful language or images in any communications with other students. Please see below for more details.

Finally - keep in mind that the TAs assigned to this course have graduated from undergraduate programs and are here at the UW working on advanced degrees in Astronomy.  They each have extensive knowledge of the course material and should be considered subject matter experts (SMEs).  Many of the TAs have been a part of this course for several quarters and are very familiar with the course, Canvas LMS and course materials and should be considered valuable resources.  When interacting with the TAs in discussions, office hours or other online activities, they should be treated with the same level of respect as your instructors as outlined above. Verbal or written abuse of the TAs will not be tolerated and will immediately be escalated to UW Student Conduct.

The graders assigned to this course are advanced undergraduates in the Astronomy Department and have advanced knowledge of the information presented in this course.  They are hardworking undergraduates, just like you, with courses, assignments and exams of their own to manage while working on this course.  All grading rubrics and point values are developed by the instructors; and the graders are required to follow them.  If you have an issue with the way an assignment has been graded, please do not argue with the graders.  Escalate all grading issues to your TAs or instructors for further review.  Verbal or written abuse of the graders will not be tolerated and will immediatly be escalated to UW Student 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:

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 & Dissemination of Course materials

Misuse or abuse of any recorded content is also prohibited under the student conduct code.  Screenshots of instructors, TAs 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.  

Do not share any course materials (lectures, lecture notes, recordings, assignments, quizzes, exams) posted to the class Canvas site. These materials are protected by U.S. copyright law and by University policy and may not be reproduced, distributed, displayed, posted or uploaded without written permission from the instructor. If you do so, you may be subject to academic misconduct proceedings under the UW Student Conduct Code.

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. It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law. 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 Instructors & TAs

See our individual pages under the Important Course Information module and the Instructor and TA Information page.

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:
June 15, 2024 - 8:03 pm