Astro150 Fall 2009

Astronomy 150
Killer Skies: Astro-Disasters

Instructor Information:

Instructor: Prof. Leslie Looney Email: lwl @ illinois . edu
Office: 218 Astronomy Phone: 244-3615
Office Hours: R: 10:45 – 11:45 am, or by appointment

Welcome to Killer Skies!

The Universe is huge! And we on the "Pale Blue Dot" that we call Earth are sitting ducks for many astronomical disasters, such as the large impacting meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But, there are many other dangerous astronomical deaths awaiting our scientific exploration.

In this class, we will explore the most dangerous topics in the Universe, such as meteors, supernova, gamma ray bursts, magnetars, rogue black holes, colliding galaxies, quasars, and the end of the Universe, to name but a few.

You have chosen a great time to take this course. We are truly in a "Golden Age" of astronomy, with an explosion of new images and data about the Solar System, the Galaxy, and indeed the whole Universe coming from many new ground-based and space-based telescopes. Our scientific view of the big picture, the nature of the physical universe, underwent a revolution in the 20th century, and further discoveries are on the horizon. In this course, we will focus on those discoveries that are dangerous to us now or someday in the far future. We will address these topics with scientific methods, but also perhaps with some philosophy and science fiction thrown in too.

Course Goals:

My goals for a graduate of this course are that they will understand our current scientific view of how dangerous, and wondrous, the Universe is today, conceptualize that the risk of danger to ourselves is actually quite low, propose what the future may hold for astronomy, make informed decisions about science policies, and hold any new scientific "discovery", or pseudo-science, claims to a personal scientific standard of proof.

Nonetheless, this class is designed to be fun. It will endeavor to teach the student about the possibilities of danger in the Universe, but it will also combine various astronomical topics. Take part in the journey, and let's enjoy the ride!

Credit Hours and Exclusions:

This course gives 3 hours credit.

Course Requirements:

Requirement Percentage of Grade
Class Participation (will drop some) 10%
Homework Assignments 10 out of 11 15%
Night Observations (For fun!) 5%
Computer Assignments 15%
Hourly Exams 25%
Final 30%
Total 100%


The following table shows the approximate grading scale in this course.

Grade Approximate Range
A 90-100%
B 80-89%
C 70-79%
D 60-69%
F <60%

Final course grades will follow these guidelines. Plusses and minuses will be used.

The ranges are approximate in that I may have to adjust them if, for example, I give an exam that is a little too hard. In any case, I will not increase the minimum cutoffs for each letter grade. In other words, you should expect that grade or higher.


Suggested Reading: Philip Plait, 1st edition, 2008, Viking, Publisher, ISBN-13: 978-0-670-01997-7

Class Participation:

You are expected to attend lectures. I will cover material in class that will not always be in the text, and the lecture material will be included on the exam. One of the main points of this class is the discussion. Class time is the most valuable for you if you come prepared, having done the reading, looked over the lecture notes, and are ready to actively engage the material. To encourage your engagement, the lectures will often be punctuated by opportunities for your feedback, in the form of asking questions, "voting" on the possible outcomes of observations or demonstrations, brainstorming answers to open-ended questions, or listening to fellow student presentations. To reward your participation in these activities, you will often be asked to respond via the iClicker.

Make sure to register your iClicker here.

These participation surveys are not "quizzes" in the usual sense, in that you are not required to get all answers right. Rather, to get full credit you simply must offer a scientifically reasonable response. The point of this is that the survey is always an opportunity to gain points as long as you are actively engaged, even if you are still a little confused. Indeed, the most difficult and potentially confusing subjects are precisely those that most require you participation!

Although the number of these is not set, often they come upon me in a whim, we will usually have at least one question per lecture of which about 5-10% of them are dropped to help those who must miss class from time to time.


There will be 11 homework assignments given throughout the course, one of which will be dropped. These assignments will be simple answer or short essay, and are meant to sharpen your thinking on the material covered in lecture, and to help prepare you for the exams.

Homework will be online through Compass and is due nearly every Sunday evening at 11:59pm. No late homework will be accepted.


Students will be required to attend one of the observing sessions at the Campus Observatory. The dates and times are posted online at You may come any time during a session, but expect to stay a full hour. That means that you must leave enough time for the entire assignment. Do not come the last 10 mins of the session and expect to finish. Do not forget that the sessions are outside, so dress warmly. The weather is unpredictable, so go early in the semester.

Computer Assignments:

There will be online computer assigments that will allow the students independent research into some of more interesting topics from class. For example, we will measure the effects of a supernova on its enviroment, and use real astronomical data from a large telescope (1.2 meter!) in Illinois to track Earth crossing asteroids. In the latter case, our class may find the largest threat facing humankind today! You may not only get a good grade, you may save the world!


Exams will be one midterm exam and a comprehensive final exam for this course. The exams will consist of multiple-choice questions. Dates are posted in the class schedule.

Academic Integrity and Collaborative Work:

Academic honesty is essential to this course and the University. Any instance of academic dishonesty (including but not limited to cheating, plagiarism, falsification of data, and alteration of grade) will be documented in the student's academic file. In addition, the particular exam, homework, or report will be given a zero.

Guidelines for collaborative work: Discussing course material with your classmates is in general a good idea, but each student is expected to do his or her own work. On homework, you may discuss the questions and issues behind them, but you are responsible for your own answers. In writing, you may discuss with classmates during the activity, but again, you must give your own answers in your own words. Finally, on exams your work and your answers must of course be your own. For further info, see the Student Code, Part 4. Academic Integrity, at

Accessibility Statement:

To insure that disability-related concerns are properly addressed from the beginning, students with disabilities who require reasonable accommodations to participate in this class are asked to see the instructor as soon as possible.

Course Schedule:

Note that the lecture material may vary, especially as the presentations are yet to be decided. Remember to check the schedule at the main webpage for the most up to date schedule.

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Leslie Looney
Last modified: Thursday, 11-Feb-2010 09:23:38 CST