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University Course Schedule
Astronomical Instrumentation
Astronomy 351 - Spring 2003
Unique No. 46005 · TTH 2:00 - 3:30 PM · RLM 13.112


Daniel Jaffe
Office: RLM 17.218
Phone: (512) 471-3425


Claudia Knez
Office: RLM 16.307
Phone: (512) 471-7460


Jimmy Welborn
Office: RLM 17.330
Phone: (512) 471-3427

Substitute Professor

John Lacy
Office: RLM 16.332
Phone: (512) 471-1469



This is a hands-on, practical course that will teach the fundamentals of the design and construction of modern astronomical instruments. It will be relevant for anyone interested in building small, computer controlled sensors or optical systems of any kind. We will cover key aspects of some of the most important topics in the field: optics and optical design, mechanical design and machining, electronics design and fabrication, real-time computer control, project planning, and performance analysis. The course will be hands-on using both hardware and simulation/CAD software. Students will work together in groups to carry out the topical segments and in teams to build a computer-controlled optical instrument. Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering majors are welcome. Enrollment will be limited to 24. For further information, contact Prof. Jaffe (471-3425,

Target Population

This course will be for undergraduates in astronomy or in other areas where computer controlled optical instrumentation is used. Teams will take advantage of the mix of talents available when astronomy, physics, CS, and engineering students take the course together.


Students will be divided into "project teams". Each of the 4-5 students on a project team also belongs to a "segment group" consisting of one student from each team. Over the course of the semester, the project team will work together on the design, construction and testing of a small but sophisticated astronomical instrument. The segment groups will work together to master the different skill areas which will enable the teams to carry out the project. Since each project team will have members in four different segment groups, after only a few weeks, each team will collectively have completed the material for the course and have the expertise necessary to do the project.

Practical Segments

We have divided the course material into four segments. Each segment will include a reading assignment, problems or exercises, a self-test, and a workshop or laboratory exercise. The segments will normally take around 3 weeks. Students will do the reading and the self-test individually. The segment group will work together on the problems and the lab exercise. Each group will meet weekly with the instructor for tutorial or mini-lecture on aspects of the topic. The segments will be strongly (but not exclusively) focused on knowledge and skills needed to carry out the instrumentation project. We will always provide information about where to learn more in each area. In addition, there will be a weekly talk on some aspect of instrument design and construction from an engineer, technician, or scientist on the McDonald Observatory staff.

Project Planning

At the beginning of the course, we will have several lectures and exercises on this subject. Topics will include the elements of group organization, scheduling, record keeping, reviews, procurement, and budgeting.

(1) Mechanical Design and Machining

The reading assignments and the exercises will deal with basic mechanical design. We will discuss materials, production techniques, tolerances, and strength and flexure analysis. We will explain the basic techniques involved in making mechanical drawings and give the students the opportunity to teach each other the use of a CAD program for producing the drawings (AutoCad LT). There will be a basic course in machine-shop techniques. It will emphasize work with the milling machine. The segment will consist of 6-10 hours of instruction plus additional work time. This segment will be taught by a McDonald Observatory instrument-maker machinist.

(2) Optical Design and Optics

This segment will teach the basics of optics needed to design a grating spectrometer. The materials will deal with optical systems employing lenses and mirrors. Also covered will be the grating equations and some descriptive material on interference filters. The segment will include a pencil and paper analysis of a simple system and a more elaborate analysis using simulation/CAD software (Zemax). Experimental work will involve the use of lenses, mirrors, and gratings. It will include exercises in alignment of optics and an empirical look at aberrations.

(3) Electronics

This segment will include the basics of a circuit design, various optional reading, paper problems, and breadboard labs. We will construct some circuits and make use of CAD/simulation software (CircuitMaker).

(4) Computer Interface

This segment will involve interfacing the computer to the real world. (i.e., the instrument). There will be reading about how digital to analog and analog to digital converters work, as well as some generic reading about bus architecture. There will be practical exercises in interfacing to A/D, D/A boards, stepper motors and other devices. Instrument control will be done using LabView and/or C++.

The Project

The project the teams will carry out this Spring is the construction of an optical grating spectrograph. It will be a scanning monochromator with the grating operated under computer control and a single solid-state detector.

All project groups will build the same kind of instrument during the semester. The teams will start out by doing a set of paper exercises to clarify the relative merits of various technical options. They will then come up with a preliminary design which they will present at a Preliminary Design Review. The team will then construct, debug, and evaluate their instrument. Teams will meet weekly with the instructor to solve problems and discuss their progress. At the end of the course, the teams will demonstrate the function of their instrument.


7 January 2003
Astronomy Program · The University of Texas at Austin · Austin, Texas 78712
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