Course Syllabus for AST 309S: The Solar System
Meeting times: Tuesday/Thursday 9:30-11:45 AM
Location: WEL 3.502
Unique number: 47588
Website: All course material will be posted on Blackboard
Marshall Johnson (20 hrs)
Andrew Riddle (10 hrs)
Tu 2-3:15 PM
Th 2-3:45 PM
Marshall-M,W 4-5 PM, Th 2-3 PM
Andrew-W 11 AM-12:30 PM
Astronomy 309S offers a broad overview of planetary science to non-science majors. We
will study the orbits, formation, composition and evolution of the sun, planets, asteroids,
Kuiper Belt objects, comets and moons in the Solar System. We will also learn about
planets outside the solar system, over 500 of which have been discovered as of Fall 2011.
The class material emphasizes the newest, most exciting discoveries in planetary science
and highlights current research methods. Much of what we will cover has been
discovered within the last five years.
The prerequisite is Astronomy 301, 302 or 303. Students are expected to be able to
apply high-school algebra, including solving for unknown variables and exponents.
Textbook: “The Solar System: Seventh Edition” by Michael A. Seeds. ISBN-13 978-1-
4390-5036-1. The Co-op may have used copies available.
Scientific calculator: exponent and trigonometric functions. Important: please bring
your calculator to class every day.
Note-taking materials: I do not use PowerPoint except to show pictures, nor do I post
lecture notes online. Your lecture notes will be an important study resource.
Homework assignments count for 30% of the course grade. You will submit your
homework assignments online using Blackboard. Important: late work will not be
accepted. Please start your electronic submission at least 20 minutes before the
assignment is due. The lowest assignment grade will be dropped. Your TAs will conduct
one homework help session per assignment, with the schedule to be determined.
There will be four quizzes that make up 60% of the course grade (15% per quiz). The
optional final exam is on Friday, December 9. If you choose to take the final exam, it
will replace your lowest quiz score. If you are happy with your grade at the end of the
semester, there is no need to take the final exam.
In-class assignments will make up the final 10% of your grade. Your lowest in-class
assignment score will be dropped.
Grading scale used for final grades:
Please note that all work, including quizzes and tests, must be neatly written and easily
readable in order to receive a grade.
I do not accept late homework unless you have a documented excuse for the time the
homework was due (i.e. doctor’s note, letter from Athletic Dept.). Make-up quizzes will
not be given except for students with religious holidays (see below) or documented
illnesses. To receive a make-up quiz because of illness, you must (a) notify the instructor
you cannot attend before the start of the quiz, and (b) provide a doctor’s note with date,
time and verification of illness.
Accomodations for students with disabilities
At the beginning of the semester, students with disabilities who need special
accommodations should notify the instructor by presenting a letter prepared by the
Service for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Office. The University of Texas provides
upon request appropriate academic accommodations for qualified students with
disabilities. To ensure that the most appropriate accommodations can be provided,
students should contact the SSD Office at 471-6259 or 471-4641 TTY.
Unit 1: Introduction and solar system formation
- Setting the scale: relative sizes of objects in the solar system, distances between
them, distances to nearby stars
- Measuring the age of the Solar System
- Why we have planets: star formation and protostellar disks
- Evidence for planet formation in disks: planet orbits, disk observations
- The Copernican Revolution
- Assignments due: September 6, 13
- Quiz 1: September 15
Unit 2: Giant Planets
- Gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn
- Galilean satellites
- Storms and the Kelvin-Helmholz instability
- NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn
- Ice giants: Uranus and Neptune
- Seasons on the outer planets
- Ganymede, Titan and Triton: moon atmospheres and distance from the Sun
- Assignments due: September 27, October 6
- Quiz 2: October 11
Unit 3: Terrestrial planets, dwarf planets and leftovers
- Geological processes: plate tectonics, volcanism, and planet size
- Terrestrial planet atmospheres and the greenhouse effect
- Giant impacts: Mercury and Moon formation, Near Earth Objects, mass
- Origin and evolution of the asteroid belt
- Kuiper Belt Objects and comets
- Assignments due: October 20, October 27, November 3
- Quiz 3: November 8
Unit 4: Exoplanets
- How to find planets: radial velocity, transit, direct imaging
- What we have discovered: hot Jupiters, planetary supergiants, hot Neptunes and
- Drake’s Equation and the search for habitable worlds
- Life in the universe
- Assignments due: November 17, 29
- Quiz 4: December 1
Final Exam: Friday, December 9, 2:00-5:00 PM. Only students who wish to improve
their grades are required to take the final exam.
Attendance and religious holidays
The in-class assignments and activities count for 10% of your grade. For grading
purposes, I will drop one in-class assignment. If you miss more than one in-class
assignment, it will count as a zero unless the absence from class was excused. To obtain
an excused absence, contact the instructor at least before the class.
It is the policy of The University of Texas at Austin that the student must notify each
instructor at least fourteen days prior to the classes scheduled on dates he or she will be
absent to observe a religious holy day. For religious holidays that fall within the first two
weeks of the semester, the notice should be given on the first day of the semester. The
student may not be penalized for these excused absences but the instructor may
appropriately respond if the student fails to complete satisfactorily the missed assignment
or examination within a reasonable time after the excused absence.
Students who violate University rules on scholastic dishonesty will receive zero credit for
the assignment or quiz on which dishonesty occurred. In addition, the Astronomy
Department or University may impose further disciplinary penalties, including the
possibility of failure in the course and/or dismissal from the University. Standards for
Academic Integrity are posted at
Laptops and cellphones
I strongly discourage laptop use during class, as brightly lit screens are distracting to
everyone sitting nearby. However, if you prefer to take notes on your laptop rather than
by hand, you must sit in the back row. No cellphone use, including texting, is allowed
E-mailing your instructor and TAs
You must e-mail us from your university email account. Always treat email as
professional correspondence and use proper punctuation and capitalization. In addition,
you must spell your instructor and/or TA’s name correctly and use an appropriate
academic title. We will try to respond to appropriately written emails within 48 business
hours. For detailed instructions on how to email a professor, see