Astro150 Fall 2013

Astronomy 150
Killer Skies: Astro-Disasters

Instructor Information:

Instructor: Prof. Leslie Looney Email: lwl @ illinois . edu
Office: 218 Astronomy Phone: 244-3615
Office Hours: W: 12:00 – 12:30 am (Wohlers 120), 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, setting the stage for deeper questions that will be answered in the 21st century. 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:


Percentage of Grade

Class Participation (will drop 5%) 10%
Homework Assignments (10 of 11) 15%
Observation Sessions (2 of 3) 10%
Online Labs (2) 10%
Hourly Exams (3 in total) 55%
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 (for fun and more info): Death from the Skies!: These are the Ways the World Will End , 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 suggested text, and the lecture material will be included on the exam. Class time is the most valuable for you if you come prepared, 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 in Compass2G by September 13th.

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% of them are dropped to help those who must miss class from time to time.

Class Etiquette:

For the benefit of your fellow students and your instructor, you are expected to follow these basic rules of decorum.

  1. Show up for class on time. If you must be late on a regular basis, please inform the instructor.
  2. Turn off or mute your cell phone before class begins.
  3. Do not leave class early, and do not rustle papers or pack up bags in preparation for leaving before class time is up. I will always try to finish a little early to provide for questions.
  4. Be attentive in class. Do not use headphones, read newspapers, or prop your feet up on other chairs or desks.
  5. Be respectful in your interactions with your fellow students and your instructors, whether in person or in cyberspace.


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.

There will be 11 homework assignments given throughout the course. These are meant to sharpen your thinking on the material covered in lecture, to develop your intuition and quantitative skills, and to help prepare you for the exams. Homework consists of questions posted on Compass, and assignments are due Monday evening at 11:59pm. Compass will not allow late homework. Thus, no late homework will be accepted, with no exceptions.


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.

There are three observing activities for this course:

  1. Planetarium Show: a presentation to illustrate the motions of the sky at a local planetarium
  2. Night Observing: an evening observing session at the campus observatory
  3. Solar Observing: a daytime session to observe the surface features of Sun.

You are required to complete worksheets for at least two of the three activities. It is to your advantage to do all the activities, however, since (a) if you do all three, only the best two scores will be counted, and (b) most students find that the observing sessions are fun.

Note: Every semester large numbers of students put these activities off until the last minute, then find the planetarium's been sold out, or the weather's cloudy on the last day. GO EARLY. If you are unavailable for any of the observing activities, see the instructor immediately.

Computer Assignments:

There will be two computer-based labs. We will learn how asteroid detection is done, and how from observations of the asteroid we can estimate its orbit. We will also track the rotation of the Sun and watch sunspots be born and die. There is some math, but it's your chance to work with real observations, and the assignments are together worth 10% of your grade!


Exams will be three one hour exams, but no 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 not only allowed but in fact a good idea. However, 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 observing and planetarium reports, you may discuss with classmates during the activity, but again, you are expected to give your own individual answers in your own words. Finally, on exams your work and your answers must of course be entirely your own.

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: Wednesday, 14-Aug-2013 19:41:41 CDT