ASTR 481 A: Introduction to Astronomical Observation

Summer 2023 Full-term
MW 3:00pm - 5:10pm / PAA A210
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

In Astro 481 you will learn every step involved in a successful observing run at the UW's Manastash Ridge Observatory (MRO). You will:

  • Write and evaluate observing proposals
  • Learn the best practices for reducing and working with CCD data
  • Handle larger volumes of data in Python
  • Perform standard star photometry
  • Analyze photometric time-series
  • Work with spectroscopy (stretch goal!)

Just like in previous years, we will split the class into three teams, each of whom will be assigned a TA. Teamwork is essential in this course, and working with your team and your TA throughout the summer forms the core of 481. In addition, each person should plan on the following overnight trips to MRO: a 1-night orientation visit and two 4-night observing runs. The exact dates depend on which orientation group and team you join. The dates of every trip in 2023 are below:


  • Group 1 leaves Friday June 23th and returns Saturday
  • Group 2 leaves Saturday June 24th and returns Sunday

Observing runs leave Thursday and return the following Monday, in time for class.

  • Team 1 and TA: June 29th - July 3rd
  • Team 2 and TA: July 6th - July 10th
  • Team 3 and TA: July 13th -  July 17th
  • Team 1 solo: July 20st -  July 24th
  • Team 2 solo: July 27th - July 31st
  • Team 3 solo: August 3th - August 7th

Your TA will help you prepare for your observations, come along for your entire first observing run, and remain on-call for your second observing run. A 4x4 vehicle for negotiating Observatory Road will be provided, but students are responsible for their own meals for the duration of each observing run, as well as upkeep of facility while they are there.

Things to Know

  • Textbooks: We will use the same texts you used in 480--which are both available for free! online! with your UW NetID (thanks UW Libraries!):
  • Computing Resources: We will use a UW hosted JupyterHub for computing, just like in 480. Please note that UW-IT will save your workspace for up to one quarter after the end of class, but not forever.
  • Late assignments:  In general I expect your work will be turned in so we can grade it in a timely fashion. If you miss a due date due to a family emergency, sickness, or other short term situation, please get in touch with me when you are again able to participate in school.
  • Academic honesty: While I hope and expect that you will work closely with other people while completing the assignments for this class, they must be in your own words, with citations to other people's work.
  • The use of MRO, though an important aspect of this class, is a privilege: It is dependent on abiding by University of Washington Conduct Codes, Policies, and relevant Executive Orders.
  • The University of Washington Department of Astronomy does not tolerate harassment of any kind: Harassment is any behavior by an individual or group that contributes to a hostile, intimidating, unwelcoming, and/or inaccessible work environment. Anyone can experience harassment. If you believe that you are being harassed, please reach out to your instructor and/or SafeCampus.
  • We Follow UW Policies: We follow the UW's guidelines for faculty, including not requiring notes from doctors. For a full list, see UW Syllabus Guidelines and Resources.


The majority of your grade is based on the two observing projects. In both cases, your interpretation is more important than your results, but interpretation is easier when results are clear.

 The Instrument and The Sky (30%): Characterize the ccd camera at MRO, observe standard stars, and determine extinction and transformation coefficients. You will each be required to prepare an individually written report on your results.

Observing Variable Stars (40%): You will select a variable star in need of observations, take those observations, analyze your data, and prepare a report on your results.

Skill building exercises (15%): Activities and/or homework designed to help you meet the course goals.

Observing Proposal/Time Allocation Committee (15%): Students will learn how to write an observing proposal, then evaluate these proposals in a mock committee.


Your final grade is determined by transforming your overall percentage to the 4.0 scale. A percentage score of at least 60% is required for credit. A score of 70% guarantees a 2.0 or higher, an 80% guarantees a 3.2 or higher, and a 95% guarantees a 4.0. Note that a 2.0 or higher is required to receive credit toward the astronomy degree or if you have chosen Satisfactory/Not-Satisfactory grading.

Accommodations & Support

This class provides accommodations for temporary health conditions and permanent disabilities through UW DRS. Support is available to discuss safety and well-being 24 hours / 7 days a week through SafeCampus.

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.

Catalog Description:
Theory and practice of obtaining optical data at a telescope. Topics include observing preparation and execution, and the subsequent data analysis required for completion of a research project. 3-credit option available for students unable to join overnight trips to the telescope. Prerequisite: ASTR 480. Offered: S.
GE Requirements Met:
Natural Sciences (NSc)
Last updated:
July 17, 2024 - 4:19 pm