Solar System

Spring Quarter 2013

Instructor: Mel Ulmer

Office: Dearborn Observatory #3

Phone: 491-5633


Office Hours: by appointment, usually open most of (but not all)  9-5 M-F

TA Office hours: Wednesdays  8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. and 12:00 noon-2:00 p.m.

Lectures: MWF at 11:00 A.M. – 11:50 A.M.  G21 Annenberg Hall Ground Floor

Textbook: Astronomy Today, The Solar System (6th edition; ISBN 0-13-615549-9 (pbk.: v.1) (Chaisson & McMillan) there is a 7th edition that is not much different but costs more so I’m sticking with the 6th

3 Mid-Term Exams : Fridays April 19,  May 10,  and Monday June 3  (50 min) in G21 Annenberg Hall 11:00 a.m.-11:50 a.m.

Optional Paper Due :  May 24,  11:00 A.M.   in class NO E-Mail deliveries allowed,

NO Final Exam:  (3 Mid terms and quizzes instead)

The X and Y notations: absence from final examinations and other incomplete work. Students are expected to complete all work in each of their courses by the appropriate deadline. They are not granted permission to make up a final examination or complete other assigned course work after the end of a quarter except in circumstances clearly beyond their control. Instructors may assign an incomplete (Y) or administer a makeup final examination only with prior permission from the Office of Undergraduate Studies and Advising. More information on the policy and process for incompletes is available in the WCAS Adviser Handbook at - 5


Special Review sessions will be held in Tech (Map of 3rd floor of Tech) M345 (go to the link and type in M345 in the Tech room finder search box)

8:00p.m.-9:30 p.m. April 18,  May 9 , and  June 2.  I will come with no lap top or power point.  When you, the students, run out of questions, we leave, even it is well before 9:30 p.m.



Except for the first and second weeks and when we have exams, we'll have 5 minute quizzes on Friday and make up quizzes on Monday.  We will drop your lowest quiz grade.

The Substitute Paper or Project, i.e replace your lowest out of 4 quizzes with this.

Every course should have a paper or project: ours is to gain a deep knowledge of some aspect of the solar system and writing about it in the form of a story (4-5 pages, double spaced 12 pt, 1 inch margins) that can assume any kind of rockets, space colonies etc, but the environment of the planet or moon must be authentic, and be taken into account.  You cannot write a story that could take place on Earth.  This means also you are not allowed to use the Earth for the location of your story. In exceptional cases, e.g. music majors or art majors, a music piece or an art that describes some aspect of the solar system can be submitted instead of the short story.

Grading Policy

The course grade will be on 3 "mid-term exam" (25%, 25%, and 30%; 80% total)  and quizzes (20%). The exams will consist of multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions. In the case of missed exams, make-ups will only be considered under the direst of circumstances and will consist of an oral test. Quizzes will consist of a short essay questions.


Nearly Required: Attendance for at least one observing session.

Dearborn Observatory has an 18 inch refractor that allows spectacular viewing of the planets, the moon and other objects. Observing sessions will probably be held on Tuesday evenings, but check on Wednesday (here or in class), 30 March for the day of the week for the observing sessions. There will be two sessions. Each will be one hour long and will be limited to 10 students. The first session will be held the second week of class. The times of the sessions will be announced at the end of the preceding week and the beginning of the week of the sessions. Sign up sheets will be made available in class and attendance will be taken at the sessions. You are allowed to attend more than one session. You should attend at least one session. The sessions will he held regardless of whether it is cloudy or not. A tour will be given in any event. Repeat attendance to achieve actual viewing is encouraged, but not required.  If you are on the borderline, i.e within 1-2 percentage point of the next grade level down, and you have not gone to an observing session I’ll move you down ½ a grade,  e.g., from B to B-

General Course Outline (note I will not cover all of each chapter)

        Week 1 (Apr 2 Tuesday start –April 5)

Astronomy and the Universe (part 1)
Read Chapters 1, 2 ,5 (part)

o   NASA Office of Space Science - the US space facilities

o   The Naval Observatory Web Page - "the web site for those who really want to know what time it is"

o   Sky Online - courtesy of Sky and Telescope magazine

           Week 2 (April 8-12)

Astronomy and the Universe (part 2) and begin Our Planetary System (The Solar System)
Read Chapters 5(part), 6, 7(part; atmosphere green house effect only)

o   Kepler’s Laws simulator

Week 3 (April 15-19)

Our Planetary System  Special Lecture on Robotic and Human Exploration of the Solar System by former Astronaut Jeff Hoffman
review on Wednesday, Exam on Friday covering chapters 1,2,5,6,7 (part) & Special lecture

o   NASA Web Page on the Solar System - links to other web pages

o   The Entire Solar System at your fingertips - links to other web pages

o   The Moon -more than you ever wanted to know

Week 4 (April 22-26) quiz

Details Comparative Planetology, Moon, Mercury Venus
Read Chapters 8  9

The Face of Venus - pictures and more

o   Mars -facts and photos

o   Visit all the planets (or just MVEM for now) -facts and photos

Week 5 (April 29-May 3) quiz

Venus, Mars
Read Chapters 10,11  

o   Go ahead visit the rest of the planets- Click on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune

Week 6 (May 6 - May 10)

 Mars, Jupiter
Read Chapters 12,  Review on Wednesday, Exam on Friday covering chapters 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12

o   Jupiter - click on Io, Europa, Ganemede, and Calisto, be sure to use the back button to switch from one moon to the other

Week 7 (May 13-17) quiz

Saturn Uranus Neptune
Read Chapters 13, 14  Saturn

o   Titan - a moon with ice floes?  Also Saturn

o   Triton - a captured moon?

o   Pluto - a runaway moon? and Charon - a runaway moon?  Note Pluto now has three moons (discovered)

o   Moderate Sized Icy Moons - click on selected moons  of selected planets

Week 8 (May 17-21) quiz

Comets, Asteriods, etc.
Read Chapters 15, 16

o   Weekly Comet Page - current info on Hale-Bopp and other comets

o   The Asteroid and Comet Fact Sheet - brought to you by NASA

o   A Model of EROS - brought to you by Mark Robinson, Jessica Edmonds, and Emily Peters

o   More on EROS - brought to you by Mark Robinson

o   Even more on EROS - brought to you by Mark Robinson

o   A Model of Gaspra - brought to you by Mark Robinson Meteorites for sale! - I can't promise this is "legit"

o   Yet more meteorites for sale! - I can't promise this is "legit"

o   Antarctic Search for meteorites - why look there?"

o   Where Comets Come From - The Oort Cloud, the Kuiper Belt and more

o   The Barringer Crater Company - Pictures and Quizzes

Week 9 (May 20-24) quiz

Paper Due: 11:00 a.m. 24 May
The Sun and Life in the Universe (in the Solar System, Search for other planets that could hold life)

Read Chapters 28 (part) Solar movies

o   Trip Through the Sun

o    Searching for Extra-solar Planets - the very latest from the planet-finders

o   The SETI Institute - the scientific approach to the ET issue

o   Mars Science Lab U tube animation

o   MSL the mission

Week 10 continued May 29 -31  Make up quiz on Wed, no class on Monday
Rearing Chapter 28 (part) Review session on Friday One last set of observing sessions.

June 3, Last Exam


The First Lecture

As a way of introduction, I would like to begin by making some general comments.

First, Astronomy is probably the oldest science. Anybody who has looked up at the sky has gazed in wonderment. Driven both by curiosity and religion, man continued to study the sky. There were some pretty important religion-based questions that were addressed, such as exactly where did man and the Earth stand compared to the Universe?  On the curiosity side, we are simply driven on and to learn more even as we learn more. For, as we delve in to the limitless universe it seems we often uncover new questions as we answer old ones. The growth in our knowledge of physics in the past 100 years has allowed us to understand a great deal about the stars, planets, galaxies and the Universe at large. In the distant past when this knowledge wasn't available, astronomers had more use as astrologers. They told people the location of the planets etc. The concept of a supernatural being and how the being's existence explains the existence and characteristics of Earth has affected people's connection with organized religion and vice versa. The knowledge of astronomy was useful for debates in this area. The Copernican Revolution was a classic example. Now we enter a new era of astronomy and astrophysics where billions of dollars are spent every year on astrophysics research, and society as a whole is starting to ask tough questions such as why is this research necessary? What's in it for me? Or why do I find it interesting? And is it worth that much money?  This has placed a requirement on the professional astrophysicist to emphasize research that connects directly to the interests of the layman rather than, perhaps, the esoteric interests of the peer group of astronomers and astrophysicists who know enough to ask detailed questions. You, as future leaders and taxpayers will have to answer the question of how much funding to give to astronomy and astrophysics and why. Two of my goals in this course are to motivate you to want to learn this material and to teach you enough so that you will be able to make educated choices about future funding as well as to appreciate future press releases and discoveries.  Also I want to you acquire some basic knowledge or the Earth’s atmosphere so you can form your own educated opinions about climate change, the ozone hole and the like.

There is another reason for you to take this course, however, and that is to learn how to think like a scientist. So stop to think a minute now, what does it mean to you when the TV reporter says "today scientists have announced the discovery of..." The use of the word scientist had a certain implied reliability, right? Why is that? And why do most universities require that you take a science class?  This is because you are supposed to receive some training to behave like a scientist, right? Yet mostly the astronomy, biology and geology courses that are offered are descriptive courses where the main goal is to teach jargon and facts. The facts will be useful as noted above, but beyond that this new knowledge will make you more conversant. So then, for example, if your child (or parent, sibling, or acquaintance) asks you something about the sky someday, you'll be able to give a concrete answer. But is this motivation enough to require that you take a science class? Probably not. It is better for you to get some training at acting scientifically. We won't be able to do this rigorously, but I hope you will actually benefit from this class.

Here are some of the things that I hope will stick with you:

(1) Be methodical and take careful notes: this is the is the art of making reproducible results, e.g., if you tell somebody exactly how you did something, they should be able to repeat it and get the same result. As an aside here, there is implied a certain level of competency in being able to reproduce the results. I could get a very precise ski lesson and still not be able to make it down a snow covered slope in one piece. Nevertheless, detailed recording of how the measurements were done,  how the material was made, etc is what is needed. One of the things that makes most of us disbelieve in UFOs, leprechauns, Big Foot etc, is that the supposed observations are not reproducible in any controlled fashion. (Sure people continue to report UFOs, Big Foot etc, but there is no concrete, reproducible evidence of these things.)

2) Think deductively and critically. For example, if a marketing person calls you and tells you that if you follow their advice, you will become rich... Think about it...Why doesn't the person on the end of the line just follow their own advice? OR thinking critically: a football player a few years ago had a sore back and the team had him take 40 Advils a day.  What was he thinking? Didn't he read the bottle for directions? Also when somebody provides you with a fact that is important to you, how do they know? What is their reference, or how did they make the measurement? This will even allow you to pick out exaggerated claims such as "Scientists discover Black Hole....''. How did they know?

(3) Avoid as often as you can qualitative thinking and descriptions versus quantitative descriptions, e.g. it's a long way to Tipperary..what does "long way" mean?

(4) Always have an idea of where you are going, why are you going there and a schedule for achieving those goals. No scientific project that takes more than a few hours or days can be done on time and within budget without systematic planning, project justification, budgets etc.

(5) Some hints from a business guru: (a) Keep your e-mails short, which means 5 sentences or fewer.  (b) Keep your presentations short, which means 10 slides or fewer.

How about asteriod-Earth collisions? First a mini-review of Armageddon (I didn't see Deep Impact). I've never seen a picture of an asteroid that is covered with stalagmites and canyons, etc, and the asteroid is not likely to have 10's of 100 meter class rocks in "formation." (A comet, which is mostly ice, is another story. It could have such an entourage). Then there was the splitting of the asteroid into two neat pieces (I think not) and the implication that the space shuttle can orbit the Moon (NOT). Never mind, let's listen to  (or read of) the following description of an impact that took place in the desert several years ago, and look at the probabilities to consider how much effort we should put into an asteroid "watch' (and destroy) program.  Or go to the youtube link that show the recent fireball: lesson learned there: if you see a fireball through the window, do not go to the window to look, but rather run form the window/duck!, or,  or

Then we will move on to the basics of the course and then some other course material.  

"The Day the Sands Caught Fire" by Jeffrey C. Wynn and Eugene M. Shoemaker  Scientific American, November 1998

Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing in the deep desert, looking northwest in the evening twilight.  The landscape is absolutely desolate: vast, shifting dunes of grayish sand stretch uninterrupted in all directions. Not a rock is to be seen, and the nearest other human being is 250 kilometers away. Although the sun has set, the air is still rather warm-50 degrees Celsius-and the remnant of the afternoon sandstorm is still stinging your back. The prevailing wind is blowing from the south, as it always does in the early spring.  Suddenly, your attention is caught by a bright light above the darkening horizon. First a spark, it quickly brightens and splits into at least four individual streaks. Within a few seconds it has become a searing flash. Your clothes burst into flames. The bright objects flit silently over your head, followed a moment later by a deafening crack. The ground heaves, and a blast wave flings you forward half the length of a football field. Behind you, sheets of incandescent fire erupt into the evening sky and white boulders come flying through the air. Some crash into the surrounding sand; others are engulfed by fire.  Glowing fluid has coated the white boulders with a splatter that first looks like white paint but then turns progressively yellow, orange, red and finally black as it solidifies-all within the few seconds it takes the rocks to hit the ground. Some pieces of the white rock are fully coated by this black stuff; they metamorphose into a frothy, glassy material so light that it could float on water, if there were any water around. A fiery mushroom cloud drifts over you now, carried by the southerly breeze, blazing rainbow colors magnificently. As solid rocks become froth and reddish-black molten glass rains down, you too become part of the spectacle-and not in a happy way.