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General course information: This course, offered by the Department of Astronomy, is set at first-year level, and is open to students from all UCT faculties. There are no prerequisites and no prior knowledge of the subject is assumed. Students who wish to sit in on the lectures, without registration, may also do so. The course forms a good introduction to astronomy for students wishing to take more advanced astronomy courses during their degree. The lectures will cover our broad current understanding of the universe and what we know about our solar system, planets, stars, galaxies and cosmology. Some history on the development of astronomy and elementary physics related to astronomical measurements will also be covered. The course material is mainly descriptive but some geometrical/mathematical concepts will be studied, in particular the Celestial Sphere which uses coordinates equivalent to latitude and longitude and compass bearing and cardinal points. Physical concepts studied will include simple properties of the electromagnetic spectrum and Doppler shifts. The level of mathematics required is not high, rather conceptual understanding will be tested.

Course organiser: Dr S-L. Blyth, Room 5.29 in the RW James Building. Contact via email: sarblyth[at]

Lectures: The lecture material is divided into the following topics:

  • Our place in the Universe (~ 20 lectures)
    • The Celestial Sphere
    • Earth-Moom-Sun system
    • Historical development of Astronomy
    • Radiation and spectroscopy
    • Telescopes and detectors
  • Our planetary system (~10 lectures)
    • The solar system
    • Asteroids and Comets
    • Exoplanets
  • Stars and stellar evolution (~15 lectures)
    • The Sun
    • Star formation and evolution
  • Galaxies and Cosmology (~15 lectures)
    • The Milky Way
    • Normal and active galaxies and dark matter
    • Cosmology
    • Life in the Universe

    Textbook: "Astronomy Today" 6th or 7th edition, Chaisson & McMillan

    Please note: The textbook is prescribed and will be necessary to provide more in-depth background material for the lectures. Lectures will serve to highlight main areas for study but background reading from the textbook will be required. It is strongly advised that students take notes in class since additional course material will be discussed during lectures which may not be directly covered in the textbook. Course notes will not be distributed for this course but the lecture slides will be made available. A copy of the textbook will be available in the Jagger Library.

    Afternoon practicals/tutorials: Afternoon practicals will be held on Wednesday afternoons (14.00 - 17.00). There will be 8 practical sessions which will incorporate (compulsory attendance at practicals is required):

  • 2 sessions at the Planetarium of the South African Museum are planned (to be confirmed). A Jammie Shuttle service is available between main campus and Orange Street, some lifts may also be arranged. Sessions will start at 15:00 and finish around 16:00. The material taught during the practical sessions is complimentary to that covered in the lectures. It concerns the understanding of the visible night sky and the Celestial sphere. Notes will be provided.
  • Remaining sessions will include computer-based practicals and group tutorials to be held in a venue to be decided. These practicals will simulate real astronomical data analysis to provide insight into how astronomers do their research.
  • Exercises: Five exercises will be issued. They are based both on lecture and practical materials and should be handed in, two weeks after issue, for credit. The exercises are part of the teaching process and they will contribute to the final class mark (10%) and DP requirement.

    Optional activities: An observing evening and a visit to the headquarters (in Cape Town) of the South African Astronomical Observatory will be arranged.

    Class tests: There will be 3 class tests, of which the highest graded two will count 40% towards the final class mark.

    DP requirements: Satisfactory attendance at lectures and all practical sessions/tutorials.; class record of at least 35%.

    Final Examination: A final two hour examination including both concept/problem-based and essay-based questions will be held in June. This will count 50% towards the final class mark.

    Assessment: The breakdown of the class mark is as follows: 10% class record based on exercises, 40% from two class tests, 50% from final examination. The subminimum requirement is 40% of the final examination.

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