ASTR341 Haverford College
Advanced Topics in Astrophysics:
Optical Observational Astronomy - Fall 2012

Course Materials and Links

Instructors: Steve Boughn and Beth Willman
Strawbridge Observatory
sboughn or bwillman at haverford dot edu

Class: M 7:30 - 10:00 pm in the observatory

Office Hours: TBD

Class Description:

The focus of this course is the acquisition and analysis of optical astronomical images using CCD cameras and the IDL programming language. Doing this will involve studying how to quantify light, statistical uncertainty, ccd cameras, digital images, and photometry. Along the way you will develop expertise in many areas, including:

1. The night sky;
2. Using modern astronomical facilities;
3. Computer programming;
4. Statistics;
5. The astronomical systems that you will study;
6. Scientific collaboration.

This is a one unit course that meets formally for 2.5 hours, once per week during the Fall semester. The course consists primarily of several observing projects that involve using the CCD cameras on the 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (located in the large dome of the Strawbridge Observatory) and the 36-inch WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (Tucson, AZ). Data from these observations will be analyzed with an image processing software package (IDL and/or IRAF) on the workstations located in the computer room of the Observatory. [To access that room after hours, you will need an Ob2 key. For those of you who do not already possess this key, see the instructor.] The results of two projects will be presented as formal reports and the results of the others as brief, descriptive reports.

The course will be very informal. After the initial instructional observing sessions, each observing team (consisting of two or three students) will have the responsibility for scheduling observing with the 16-inch telescope. The run at Kitt Peak run has already been scheduled: October 18 through October 21 (during fall break). The regularly scheduled class time (Mondays, 7:30-10:00 p.m.) will serve three purposes. For the first few weeks of the semester, this time will be used for workshops on a variety of topics; e.g., an introduction to CCD cameras, an introduction to image processing, operating the 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, preparing for the Kitt Peak run, etc. In addition, we will meet occasionally during this time to discuss the details of individual projects and reports. Finally, this time slot will give assurance that there is at least one night a week when members of all observing teams do not have scheduling conflicts. Because observing sessions often last for 5 or 6 hours, do not make any other commitments on Monday evenings that you cannot reschedule. Of course, because of the weather, there are other days of the week when you might have to observe.

The textbook is more of a reference book, Handbook of CCD Astronomy by Steve Howell, and occasionally readings from it will be assigned. This handout on CCD statistics will be helpful.


The primary prerequisite for this course is Astro 205; therefore, it is expected that all students will have a working familiarity with the 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope located in the small dome in the Strawbridge Observatory. It is anticipated that some students will also have some familiarity with the Linux computer operating system, the IDL and/or IRAF software package, and general CCD camera operation. However, students unfamiliar with these systems will be quickly brought up to speed and will then be able to direct most of their efforts to the observing projects. The primary purpose of the first two projects is to learn CCD camera operations and basic photometric techniques.

The 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain is a fairly complicated and delicate instrument, and it is quite susceptible to damage from misuse. It is imperative that you be thoroughly checked out by your instructor before using the telescope. Two trained observers must be present during any observing run.

Assignments and Grading:

Your course grade will largely be based on your writeups to 4 labs (this is tentative list) and on your overall class participation. There will be no exams.

1. Due Monday, Sept 24 - An Introduction to CCD Observations: Characterizing the CCD camera and becoming fluent in basic computational techniques

2. Due Monday, October 29 - Color-magnitude diagram of an open star cluster: Data taken with the Strawbridge 16-inch telescope.

3. Due Monday, November 19 - Pretty Picture lab: Generate a high quality color image of an extended object (or objects) from data taken with either the Kitt Peak telescope or the 16-inch Strawbridge telescope.

4. Due Friday, December 14 - Time-series imaging to find and characterize variable stars in the halo of our Galaxy using the Kitt Peak telescope.

Late work will only be accepted without penalty in serious circumstances: religious holiday, death in the family, illness. Otherwise, late work will be graded down by 10% credit per day late. Between 5 and 10 days late, work will be penalized by 50%. Work that is more than 10 days late will receive no credit.

Formal Reports:

Formal reports will be required for two of the projects. These reports should be written in standard journal style and format. Look at articles in Astrophysical Journal for examples. Reports should include: (1) a short abstract in which the important results of the observations and subsequent analysis are summarized; (2) an introduction of approximately one page in which the observations are placed in an astrophysical context. It is in this section that one may wish to review current scientific understanding of the object or the results of previous observations; (3) an observations section in which the observations are described and perhaps some raw data tables are given; (4) an analysis section which describes the reduction of the data. This needn't be in great detail. Caution—never put simple arithmetic calculations in this section; just let the reader know how the analysis is being done. Tables, graphs, and images are appropriate in this section. Note – items 3 and 4 are often intermingled; (5) a discussion and/or conclusions section which gives a clear presentation of the important results and, if appropriate, comments on their significance. If you must wax philosophical, this is the place to do it (in moderation); and (6) a reference section. Use the Ap. J. style. We will discuss these matters in a workshop prior to the first formal report.

Honor Code:

The important guiding principle of academic honesty is that you must never represent the work of another as your own. Please request clarification of the following if you find yourself in any doubtful situations: Discussion and collaboration with other students on homework sets and labs is encouraged. However, all submitted work must be your own. While working together is permitted, merely copying the work of another student (whether a calculation or a sketch of a moon phase) without indicating that you have done so is clearly a representation of his or her work as your own and so is a violation of the code. You should always try all work by yourself before collaborating with classmates, posting questions on Blackboard, going to Blackboard to see the answers to other questions, or coming to discussion section.