Artist's impression of Cassini mission orbiting Saturn

ASTR 120: Exploration of the Solar System, Fall 2017, Section 8528

Grossmont College, Department of Physics & Astronomy

Instructor: Dr. Philip Blanco.
Phone: (619) 644-7312.

Course web page:

Lectures in Health & Physical Sciences Building (34), lower floor
Section 8528: Tue/Thu 12:30-1:45pm in 34-171

Office hours:Mondays 10:30-12:30pm, Tues/Wed 2:30-4pm, or by appointment. Note: To avoid time conflicts with other students in other classes, please let me know in person or via email when you intend to arrive. Other meeting times can also be arranged in advance.

Tutoring/Computer lab in Room 34-108:
Remember to bring your Grossmont computer account login information, Canvas login information, and optionally your textbook.


2017 Nov 19: Tuesday reading quiz: 6.2-6.3

Thu Oct 26: Exam 2 Study Guide. Bring a Datalink 26760, small ruler+pencil for diagram, calculator, up to 4 sides (2 pages) of HANDWRITTEN notes.

Tue Oct 17: READING QUIZ: Sections 4.1-4.2. Bring a Datalink 26760.

2017 Sep 22: Exam 1 study guide for Tuesday's exam. Please bring: Datalink 26760, pencil, scientific calculator, up to 4 sides (2 pages) of handwritten notes.

2017 Sep 14: TUESDAY SEP 19 READING QUIZ: Sections 2.1-2.2. Bring a pencil and a Datalink 26760.

Exam 1 is now rescehduled to TUES SEP 26.

2017 Aug 31: "Canvas" is the new online learning system which will replace Blackboard for all classes at Grossmont College by the end of the year. You can find your Canvas account at, where you can log in with your Webadvisor username/password (password initially set to birth date). Then just follow the instructions for MasteringAstronomy in the quick links below.
If you run into difficulties with accessing Canvas or registering for MasterAstronomy - DON'T PANIC! We shall go through the (one-time) process in Week 3 in class.
Also check out the many extra credit opportunities (up to 10% of your course grade) listed at the link below.

2017 Aug 13: Need a general education science laboratory class? Register for my section of ASTR112 Section 2227 Astronomy Laboratory, which meets on Thursdays 2:30-5:20pm. The labs will support your learning in ASTR120, and you can continue working with your fellow ASTR120 students as lab partners (in addition to students from other astronomy classes).

2017 Aug 8: IMPORTANT! Online homework is accessed through Grossmont's new Learning Management System Canvas (which replaces Blackboard), using the publisher's "MasteringAstronomy" modules, which you have to pay for.

There are two options for obtaining a text book with the online access:
  • Loose leaf book with access code for Modified MasteringAstronomy for Canvas: ISBN-13 9780134809953
  • OR
  • Electronic book with the MasteringAstronomy access code for Canvas: ISBN-13: 9780134602080 These can be purchased together online with a credit or debit card.
  • Finally, as long as you purchase MasteringAstronomy online access for the 8th edition, you can probably get by with a used 7th edition of the text book, available online for much less than the latest (8th) edition.

    If this sounds confusing, don't worry. You will only have to set this up once, and guidance will be provided in Weeks 1 and 2.

    Quick Links:

    Guide to registering and enrolling in Canvas and MasteringAstronomy (PDF file).
    Extra Credit Activities - I recommend that you print this and take it with you!
    This Week's Sky at a Glance - weekly sky guide, news headlines, and interactive sky chart.
    Skywatching - daily chart from Earth & Sky
    Astronomy Picture of the Day.
    Space Weather, including current images of the Sun, night sky phenomena, and a list of potentially hazardous asteroids (click on any one to see their orbit)
    Universe Today, astronomy and space news, with some great pictures and videos.
    Planetary Society. For the latest in solar system exploration news, check out their blogs by Bill Nye and others.

    Course Calendar:

    Sep 4 Mon: Labor Day holiday
    Sep 26 Tue: EXAM 1 (new date)
    Oct 24 Tue: EXAM 2
    Nov 10 Fri: Last day to withdraw from course (a "W" grade will be recorded)
    Nov 30 Thu: EXAM 3

    Final Exam:

  • Section 8528: Thu Dec 14, 11:35am-1:45pm
  • Conflicts? Please inform the instructor within the first 3 weeks of the semester. Note that there is a "no make-ups" policy for this course. No exceptions. Instead, you may drop TWO reading quizzes and ONE mid-term exam without penalty.


    ASTR120 is a full equivalent to ASTR110 (Introduction to Astronomy) but focuses on our Solar System and our endeavors to explore and understand it. This is an exciting time in history to learn about our Solar System - with more spacecraft than ever before traveling to, observing, and landing on, our planetary neighbors. Thanks to the knowledge gained, in our life time we shall begin to answer many of mankind's age-old questions about our past, present, and future relationship with the solar system. NOTE: This class IS acceptable as a pre-requisite for the ASTR112 laboratory, which can be taken at the same time or later. Both together satisfy the General Education science+laboratory requirements for transfer.

    Catalog Description:

    This course investigates the origin of our Solar System and how its contents change with time. The course surveys and analyzes the physical properties of solar system contents, including the Sun, planets, moons, rings, comets, and asteroids. Methods of space exploration will be discussed as related to past, current, and future efforts.

    Topics include: origins of the elements in our solar system, formation and evolution of the solar system; comparative planetology (geology and atmospheres), gravitational and thermal effects on solar system objects, space exploration, and recent developments in the search for extrasolar planets.

    Student Learning Outcomes:

    Upon successful completion of this course, students will have the skills to:
    1. identify the important components of the solar system.
    2. recognize how scientific observations and methods are used to improve our understanding of the solar system.
    3. identify the fundamental forces and physical processes affecting the solar system.
    4. explain the relationships between components of the Solar System.
    5. explain how the Solar System and its components change with time.

    Required Course Materials:

    Please note that the lectures, not the textbook, form the basis of the examinable course material. We shall be using the textbook for reading assignments (weekly reading quizzes), for homework, and to support the lecture material.

    Course Assignments and Grading Policy

    The approximate grading scale for this class is:
    A: > 85%     B: 70-85%     C: 55-70%     D or F: < 55%
    Grades near the upper and lower boundaries of their respective ranges will be modified by "+" and "-" values, as described in the Grossmont College Catalog. (Note that there is no C-, D+, or D- grade).

    Actual grade boundaries may change slightly, and depend on the difficulty of exams and homework assignments - NOT on class performance (i.e. there is no "curve" or set quota for each grade). This means:

    1. Everyone in the class can get an "A".
    2. You are not in competition with your fellow students. In fact, working together in class will be actively encouraged! However, all work submitted for grading must be your own.

    Homeworks - online and written (35% of final grade):

    Homework assignments will be given at the start of each week, usually for completion by the following week's Wednesday lecture. Most of the homework assignments will be online tutorials or quizzes from, but 1 or 2 may be written end-of-chapter assignments to be handed in for grading, or worksheets to be completed using astronomy software on the Physics department computers (in Room 34-108).

    All homework, online and written must be your own work. Written assignments need not be typed, but must be neatly presented in blue or black pen (not pencil!), with pages stapled together. Submissions by email will not be accepted - please print and hand in your work like everyone else.

    Each written assignment will receive a score between 0 and 4 points. Late work will be penalized at least 1 point. Assistance with homework can be obtained during office hours provided you can show me that you have made a bona fide effort on your own first! Note: if you do not at least attempt the homeworks on your own, you will be at a severe disadvantage in the mid-terms, and in the final exam!

    Mid-term exams (35% of final grade):

    Mid-terms will consist of about 40 multiple-choice questions (bring a Datalink 26760), and occasional short-answer questions - often in the form of a diagram. There will be absolutely no make-ups for a missed mid-term; instead, the best 2 mid-term scores out of the 3 given count towards 35% of your overall grade.

    Unless otherwise noted, you may be allowed to bring up to 4 sides (2 pages) of handwritten notes to the mid-term exams.

    Weekly reading quizzes (15% of total grade):

    Beginning in week 3, I shall give a reading assignment from the text book for a short (5 question) reading quiz the following Monday. There will be no make-ups for missed reading quizzes. Instead, the lowest two scores will be dropped from the overall grade calculation.

    Final Exam (15% of total grade):Thu Dec 14, 11:35am-1:45pm

    The final exam will be a comprehensive review of all material covered in lectures, and will consist of multiple-choice and short-answer written or diagram questions. Once the final exam schedule has been published, please contact the instructor as soon as possible to resolve any conflicts with your other exams.

    Extra Credit Assignments (up to a maximum of 10% of total grade)

    During the semester you can receive extra credit for participating in scheduled astronomy events around San Diego County. A separate handout (see Quick Links above) contains the information and requirements for your extra credit reports. First two reports: up to 3% extra credit. Subsequent reports: 2% with a maximum of 10% total for the course.

    For each event attended, you must write a 1-page report on what you learned, and attach the proof of participation described in the separate handout provided in class and on the course web page. You may receive additional extra credit (up to 10% maximum) for attending and reporting on more than one event during the course.

    Other activities may be acceptable for extra credit with prior approval from the instructor.

    Academic Integrity

    There are no "group credit" assignments in this class, including the homeworks. While working and studying together is encouraged, all work to be graded must be your own. Unless otherwise noted, all exams and quizzes are "closed book" absolutely no recorded information may be brought in from the outside. You will be provided with relevant equations and numerical values for all tests. Mid-terms and the final exam will be designed to test understanding, not memory, so cheating will not help you - and you will probably be caught!

    Academic dishonesty is a serious action and will not be tolerated, since it compromises the value of hard-earned grades for all students at Grossmont. It includes, but is not limited to, copying another's work, allowing someone to copy your work, talking during an exam or quiz, giving information to another student during an exam or quiz, using unauthorized notes on an exam or quiz, or having another person take a test for you.

    Cheating and plagiarism (using as one's own ideas writings, materials, or images of someone else without acknowledgement or permission) can result in any one of a variety of sanctions. Such penalties may range from an adjusted grade on the particular exam, paper, project, or assignment (all of which may lead to a failing grade in the course) to, under certain conditions, suspension or expulsion from a class, program or the college. For further clarification and information on these issues, please consult with your instructor or contact the office of the Associate Dean of Student Affairs.

    Classroom Conduct

    Laws control the lesser person; right conduct controls the greater one. ~ Chinese Proverb
    "Be excellent to each other!" ~ Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

    All students should be familiar with the Student Code of Conduct, which may be found in the Grossmont College catalog. In addition, please observe these rules out of consideration for your fellow students and your instructor, so that we may all enjoy a pleasant and productive learning environment.

    Attendance and Enrollment:

    After week 2, you do NOT need to let the instructor know that you will miss a class. However, after 3 consecutive absences, Grossmont's policy allows the instructor to drop a student from class, but do not assume that you will be dropped if you just stop showing up! YOU are responsible for ensuring that you are properly enrolled or dropped before the deadlines given above.

    Arriving and Leaving:

    Please arrive "ready to learn", i.e. with your belongings in order, no food or drink, and no need to use the restroom during lecture.
    Students leaving the classroom during lecture time will not be allowed to return! Otherwise this behavior becomes an annoying distraction to your fellow students and the instructor. If you think you may need to use the restroom, it is better to do so beforehand and be a few minutes late for lecture, than to leave and return in the middle of the lecture.

    If you have a good reason to leave early, please notify the instructor at the start of lecture, then find a seat where you can leave without disturbing others unnecessarily.

    In the Classroom:

    Productive and respectful interaction with classmates and instructor is encouraged, while any behavior which disrupts the learning environment will not be tolerated.

    This includes (but is not limited to): talking, chewing, gesturing, passing notes, sleeping, reading non-classroom material, use of headphones, cellphones, or portable electronics. (Either silence your cellphone, or place it where you can cancel the ring-tone within 2 seconds. Cellphones must be turned off during any test.

    No recording of audio, images, or video is permitted in the classroom. This is to protect the privacy of your fellow students, and to ensure the integrity and academic freedom of our learning environment. Recording of any classroom activity, even if clandestine, will be treated as disruptive behavior.

    Possible sanctions for disruptive behavior include: ejection from the lecture, a 2-lecture suspension, and disciplinary action by the college.

    During Exams:

    During any test (reading quiz, mid-term exam, or final exam) cellphones and all other electronics (with the exception of your non-programmable calculator) must be turned completely off, and you may be asked to roll up your sleeves and remove hats. Electronic dictionaries are not permitted, but with prior approval you may use a published foreign language to English dictionary. The instructor may use video recording equipment to monitor exams, and software designed to detect plagiarism on homework assignments or multiple-choice tests.

    Help is available!

    In addition to office hours, please feel free to contact me via email if you are "stuck". Also, Grossmont offers some great resources to help you do well:

    Philip Blanco, Astronomy, Grossmont College