Solar System

Spring Quarter 2010

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

Lectures: MWF at 2:00 P.M.  L211 Tech (South Wing)

Textbook: Astronomy Today, The Solar System (6th edition; ISBN 0-13-615549-9 (pbk.: v.1) (Chaisson & McMillan)

3 Mid-Term Exams : Fridays April 16,  May 7,  May 28  (50 min) in L211 in Tech

Paper Due :  May 26,  2:00 pm  NO E-Mail deliveries allowed, 

NO Final Exam:  (3 Mid terms 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


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 Paper or Project

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%) each [75% total]  and the paper (15%), quizzes (10%). 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 question.


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 must attend at least one session. The session 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. You will receive an incomplete in the class if you do not attend a session. In order to receive permission to obtain an incomplete, you must see the Office of Studies. Therefore it is easier to attend a session than to take an incomplete.

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

        Week 1 (Mar 29-Apr 2)

Astronomy and the Universe (part 1)
Read Chapters 1, 2 (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 5-9)

Astronomy and the Universe (part 2) and begin Our Planetary System (The Solar System)
Read Chapters 2(part), 5, 7(part) Substitutes on 7th (lecture on the Earth) and 9th  search for water (overlaps with mars, Jupiter and also extra-solar planets

o      Kepler’s Laws simulator

Week 3 (April 12-16)

Our Planetary System The Earth Note, 7 before 6
Read Chapters 7(part), Chapter 6, review on Wenesday, Exam on Friday covering chapters 1,2,5,6 & 7

o      Another 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 phases great for avoiding were-wolves, planning grunion run expeditions, or even looking that the sky

o      The Apollo 11 launch

o      Geology of the Moon web course

Week 4 (April 19-23)

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 Terrestrial Planet Pages -facts and photos

Week 5 (April 26-April 30 )

Venus, Mars
Read Chapters 10,11  

o      The Nine Planets Page again - Click on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune

Week 6 (May 3- May 7)

 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

Week 7 (May 10-14)

Saturn Uranus Neptune
Read Chapters 13, 14

o      Titan - a moon with ice floes?

o      Triton - a captured moon?

o      Pluto - a runaway moon? and Charon - a runaway moon?

o      Or go here

o       Icy Moons and Life? - click on selected moons

o      NASA Mission?

Week 8 (May 17-21)

Comets, Asteriods, etc.
Read Chapters 15, 16

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

o      Disaster You tube –JPL office not to worry J

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

o      A Model of EROS -

o      More on Eros EROS the movie- 

o      View of  3 asteroids  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 24-28)

Paper Due: 2:00 P.M. Tech L211 26 May
The Sun and Life in the Universe (in the Solar System, Search for other planets that could hold life)
Read Chapters 28,  Review, Third Exam covering chapters  13,14,15, 16 & 28

o      Solar links from Lockheed MartinTrip 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   No class One last set of observing sessions June 1. Sign up the week before


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 religious 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.

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 an 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, and if your child 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: since 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, 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 planing, 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 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. 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.