Course Syllabus

Welcome to Astronomy 150: The Planets Online

Your "Astro 150 Team"

Instructors & Teaching Assistants

Intro Nicole.jpg

Nicole Kelly, Ph.D., Lecturer

Eric Agol

Eric Agol, Ph.D., Professor

Teaching Assistants

Miles Currie and Sebastian Demasi

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, 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.  


What you can expect from your Instructors 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 quarter 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. We 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. 

Your Astro 150 team will be available both in-person and online on Canvas Chat for office hours each week and we will have time outside of that for you as well.  

This is a survey course, therefore we do not assume or require that you have a scientific or mathematical background. That being said, we 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 Excel, Google Sheets). If you do not know how to use these tools or do not have access to them, please make a point of speaking with someone on your Astro 150 team 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 stated above, we expect you to 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 and you have an entire week to complete them. If you miss them, you will receive a zero. So put in constant weekly effort and you will be very successful! Take advantage of our 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 due dates, and ideally gives you enough time to get help when you need it.  We usually do not give extra credit. This course moves quickly through material, therefore we do not allow registrations beyond the first week of classes.

Optional and Required Textbooks

Please refer to the Optional & Required Textbooks page for more information.

    Technology Requirements

    You will need a reliable and reasonably high-speed connection to the Internet.

    Course Elements

    Please note that my primary form of communication with you will be on Canvas in the form of announcements on the Announcement List or on Canvas email or in comments 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 a Canvas Announcement. Please either make a habit of checking Canvas for announcements or update your Canvas preferences to email your UW email address with daily or immediate summaries. Either make a habit of reading this email account or forward it to one that you read often. 

    Reading Summary Assignments

    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 and a probe on a comet and a probe is on it's way 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. 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 (1 day) will receive half credit.  Missed or later submissions will result in a zero grade. 

    Group Discussion Participation

    Participation is a requirement for this course.  The Canvas Discussions platform will be used for online discussion about class topics. It has been shown that learning outcomes are better when students are allowed to interact with each other in small groups.  Since this is an online class where you don't have a lot of in-person contact with your fellow students, 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 (5-10 students max) for most of these discussions.  For some discussions we may assign a group leader.  The group leader will usually be responsible for selecting a particular topic discussion from a list of choices and must initiate the discussion and help keep it going throughout the week.  

    Credit for the discussions will be based on the timeliness, frequency and relevance of your posts.  You must participate throughout each week for full credit.  Your first original post on the weekly topic is due before Wednesday at midnight each week with subsequent posts or comments to be made on separate days following the original, but before the Sunday due date.

    Keep in mind though, that the more you participate and post, the better you will do in this course, as the discussions will usually be closely tied to the topic and learning goals each week.  You will see questions on the exams based on these discussion topics.

    Before you start posting, be sure to read the Group Discussion Forum Guidelines and Finding Discussion Groups and Group Leaders before you begin. 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.

    Lesson Activities

    Occasionally you will be assigned an activity which emphasizes a specific learning goal from that week's lesson module.   The assignments have been selected to be closely related to or augment in some meaningful way, that week’s course material. Your TAs will evaluate and grade your assignments.  Some of these activities have associated discussion boards on which you can discuss the material or chat about how to work through problems with your classmates. 

    Some of these assignments will be in the form of a discussion and you will not be able to see your fellow students posts until you have first submitted your own.  You cannot edit or delete your posts so please be thoughtful in your posts and responses. If you cannot live with a mistake you've made in a post, you are welcome to resubmit it until the due date and your TAs will grade your second submission.  Please refrain from posting blank, partial, or nonsense posts as these may result in a zero grade.  Late submissions (1 day) will receive half credit.  Missed or later submissions will result in a zero grade. 

    Online Quizzes

    There will be a weekly online lesson quiz that is required (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 two attempts for each quiz with the high score being recorded as final.  Both attempts must be completed before midnight each Sunday.  Missing an online quiz will result in a zero grade.  Correct answers will be available immediately after the quiz closes each week. Because there are so few of these quizzes and they are weighted equally with the other assignment groups, your lowest quiz grade will be dropped. 

    Please Note: Canvas is a bit quirky. It is your responsibility to make sure that the final answers you submit are exactly what you intended. Check over your quiz carefully before final submission. Then, make sure you hit the ‘submit’ button before the closing time! If you save a quiz it does not automagically get submitted on the due date/time. You must hit 'submit’. 


    There will be two 80 minute in-person exams (midterm and final). The final is cumulative with heavy emphasis on the material presented after the midterm. The exams will cover all of the material presented in each module with the exception of your reading summaries. The format will be some combination of multiple choice, fill-in and short answer questions or sometimes, instead of short answer questions, we may include one essay question. 

    We don't always use essays for exams, but if we do use them, the essay questions and a full description of our expectations for them will be given in well in advance of the exams so you can prepare for them. 

    Most students take these exams with us on the UW campus in Seattle on the dates posted on Midterm and Final Exam Information page. Times and room locations will be confirmed and sent in an announcement shortly after the course begins.  

    You will receive a zero grade for a missed exam. If you know you are going to miss either exam for an excused reason please read the Exam Conflicts - Scheduling Alternate Exam Dates and the Athletics, Activities, Events & Work - Conflict Guidelines pages 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. Otherwise, it is not possible to take an exam after the scheduled date/time windows.

    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.

    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 e-mail to ask the instructor/TA questions but, if the topic would be of general interest, post your question on the General Discussion Forum

    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 & the Origin of the Solar System

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


    Late Work Policy: No late assignments will be accepted.


    % of Total

    Discussions & Reading Assignments 


    Lesson Activities




    Exams (Midterm 15%; Final 20%)


    Your assignment submissions and exams will be graded by your me and your TA with suggested point values and rubrics given by me.  Weekly quizzes will automatically be graded by Canvas and you will be able to see the correct answers after the quiz closes. There will also be 2 evaluation "exams" you are required to take.  They will be graded, but the grades themselves do not factor into your exam score. 

    The final percentile score (out of 100) is converted to the 4.0 scale in Canvas with the typical average grade of 80% receiving around a 3.1. Higher and lower grades scale accordingly.  The cut for credit/no-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.   You will be able to see your minimum GPA for the course listed in the gradebook next to your percentile score.

    Please Note: Think carefully if you are considering taking this class as credit/no-credit. As an undergraduate, you need a 2.0 (~70%) to receive credit for the class this way.

    Academic Integrity

    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. Any cheating or blatant plagiarism will be dealt with swiftly and addressed as per the University's academic guidelines on the matter.

    Read more here if you are curious: 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 Accommodations

    Your experience in this class is important to us, and 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 experience barriers based on disability, please visit Disability Resources for Students to get more information about requesting accommodations. You are also welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924 or

    About the Instructors

    Nicole Kelly is an observational astronomer specializing in the evolution of binary star systems, primarily those comprised of a low mass star and an evolved white dwarf star. 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 hiking, biking, backpacking, skiing and playing in the Pacific Northwest.

    Eric Agol is a professor of astronomy specializing in astrophysics.   He has worked on studying black holes and gravitational lensing, and more recently has spent his time working on the study of extrasolar planets (or "exoplanets"), creating the mathematical model that has been used to discover thousands of transiting exoplanets with the Kepler spacecraft.  With collaborators, he has produced the first maps of extrasolar planets.  He discovered Kepler-62f, and planet slightly larger and cooler than Earth, which orbits a star slightly smaller than our Sun.  He helped in the discovery and characterization of the Trappist-1 system of seven planets which orbit a very small, cool star.   He developed a technique called "transit-timing variations" which was used to measure the masses of these small planets.  Several of the Trappist-1 planets are very similar in size and temperature to Venus, Earth, and Mars, and thus offer the opportunity for studying planets that are both very similar, but also possibly quite different, than the terrestrial planets in our Solar System.

    Course Summary:

    Date Details Due