Course Syllabus for AST 309S: The Solar System
Meeting times: Tuesday/Thursday11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Location: WEL 3.502
Unique number: 48275
Website: All course material will be posted on Blackboard
Caprice Phillips, RLM 15.310E, (512) 471-3387, email
Bohua Li, RLM 16.212, (512) 471-8443, email
Tu 4:30-5:30, W 4-5
Homework help sessions
Kevin Gullikson will conduct one homework help session per assignment, with the
schedule to be determined.
Astronomy 309S is designed to offer a broad overview of planetary science to nonscience
majors. We will study the orbits, formation, composition and evolution of the
sun, planets, asteroids, Kuiper Belt objects, comets and moons. We will also learn about
planets outside the solar system, over 500 of which have been discovered as of Fall 2010.
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
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.
Computer access: For our exoplanet homework assignment, you will either need to
work for 1-2 hours in the astronomy computer lab, or you will need to install a Java
application on your own computer.
Note-taking materials: I do not use PowerPoint except to show pictures, nor do I post
lecture notes online. My expectation is that students will take notes during lecture.
Homework assignments count for 20% of the course grade. To help us keep the
homework papers organized and make sure you get full credit for your work, please make
sure to put your name on every page and staple the pages of your assignment. The lowest
assignment grade will be dropped.
There will be four quizzes with the lowest quiz grade dropped. The three remaining
quizzes together make up 50% of the course grade. Important: Only grades from quizzes
you actually take will be dropped. If you miss a quiz, the zero will be averaged into your
The cumulative final exam on Thursday, May 12 will be 20% of the course grade.
In-class assignments will make up the final 10% of your grade.
Grading scale used for final grades:
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.
Please note that all work, including quizzes and tests, must be neatly written and easily
readable in order to receive a grade.
Unit 1: Introduction and solar system formation
- Setting the scale: relative sizes of objects in the solar system, distances between
them, distance to nearby stars
- Measuring the age of the Solar System
- Why we have planets: star formation and protostellar disks
- The Copernican Revolution
- Assignments due: January 27 and February 3
- Quiz 1: February 10
Unit 2: Giant Planets
- Formation, composition and size: ongoing research
- Gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn
- Ice giants: Uranus and Neptune
- Rotation, magnetic fields and storms
- Moons and rings
- Assignments due: February 22 and March 1
- Quiz 2: March 3
Unit 3: Terrestrial planets, dwarf planets and leftovers
- Formation, composition and size
- Geological processes: plate tectonics, volcanism and the carbon cycle
- Asteroids: sizes, orbits, encounters with Earth, mass extinctions
- The moon-forming impact: ongoing research
- Kuiper Belt Objects and comets
- Assignments due: March 22 and April 5
- Quiz 3: April 12
Unit 4: Exoplanets
- What we have discovered: hot Jupiters, planetary supergiants, Neptunes and
- How to find planets
- Drake's Equation and the search for habitable worlds
- Life in the universe
- Assignments due: April 28
- Quiz 4: May 5
Final Exam: Thursday, May 12, 2:00-5:00 PM
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 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.
I do not accept late homework unless you have an excused absence for the class period
when the homework was due. To obtain an excused absence, contact me before class.
In general, I will not give make-up quizzes. The only exceptions are religious holidays
(see above) and 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.
I report all incidents of cheating or suspected cheating to Student Judicial Services.
Students who violate University rules on scholastic dishonesty are subject to 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-no exceptions. 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