From red shift to telescopes to the Big Bang theory
Have you ever wondered what those bright twinkly blobs in the night sky actually are? Oh sure, your science teacher says they're stars, but you've always secretly suspected there's more to it than that. (Otherwise why would Jiminy Cricket be so obsessed with them?) Well you're right—there is more to it than that. It's called astronomy, and it lets you in on the secret lives of stars, planets, and everything in between.
Here you'll learn where stars go to die, ponder the possibility of time travel, learn about red shift, and contemplate the likelihood that some alien version of you is contemplating exactly the same thing billions of light years away (i.e. get cozy with the Drake Equation). You'll also learn what a light year actually is, why you don't need to worry about a rogue planet slamming into Earth and ending life as we know it, and what you should be worried about.
In this course, we'll cover:
- the history of astronomy
- our solar system (love you, Milky Way!)
- everything you'd ever want to know about stars
- tools of the trade (telescopes, parallax, mapping)
- cosmology and the history of the universe
- the big questions in astronomy
- how to become an astronomer
Astronomy's one science where you can actually indulge your secret Star Trek fantasies—warp drive, time travel, and alien life are all legitimate fields of study here. So suit up, Shmoop up, and prepare to boldly go. Find out where the stars can take you, and what they can teach us.
Unit 1. There's No Place Like Home
This unit covers the basics of astronomy: what astronomy is, a brief history of astronomy, what astronomists study, and major astronomical bodies we'd find in our solar system.
Unit 2. Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire
This unit is all about stars. What are they? What are they made of? We learn about the life cycle of stars, and then study deep space phenomena like nebulae, black holes, and other star systems. Finally, we'll examine real data from the Kepler telescope and websites like Galaxy Zoo to get some hands-on astronomy experience.
Unit 3. Tools of the Trade
This unit studies the tools astronomers use to do astronomy, including one of the most important: the telescope. After reviewing the history of the telescope and how it revolutionized our understanding of the sky, we'll learn the basics of modern telescopes and make our very own 'scope. Finally, we'll learn about a few other "tools," like parallax, ascension, declination, and learn about how the Earth's tilt affects our planet.
Unit 4. Cosmology, the Universe, and Math
In this unit we really bit into some meaty cosmological topics: Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, the Cosmic Distance Ladder, the Big Bang Theory, and the history of the universe. Ever wondered what Olbers' Paradox is? Find out here.
Unit 5. The Big Questions in Modern Astronomy
We cap off the course by investigating some of the big remaining questions in modern astronomy, including SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. We'll get cozy with the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation, and close out the course by exploring career opportunities in astronomy.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 3: Welcome to Our Solar System
Not to put too much pressure on it, but we can't really discuss astronomy without discussing the beginning of our solar system. After all, if there were no solar system, there would be no astronomy, and no human beings to talk about it. One event triggered all the necessary ingredients to create the cosmos and life itself. That's a lot to riding on the shoulders of one event. We hope it's been working its delts.
While we don't know exactly how the solar system formed, we do have an educated guess. We think that about 5 billion years ago a gas and dust cloud called a nebula collapsed. Why? Here are some theories:
- A giant star exploded and the shockwave of energy from it caused the collapse. So we are made up of star dust. (Take that, everybody who said you wouldn't make it in Hollywood.)
- At the middle of the cloud, a magnetic field created a wave of energy that caused the collapse.
- Waves of radiation from supergiant stars caused the collapse.
Any way you slice it, the cloud started to spin, and its middle got very hot. Let's journey inside the universe when it was in a hot, dense state. First stop: Gas Cloud.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.3: First Stop—Gas Cloud
Annnnddd we're back. This installment: The solar system's birth.
At the core of that nebula we mentioned, the Sun formed. Its magnetic field may have blown some of the lighter elements like hydrogen and helium into the outer solar system. (They were literally blown away by the sun's magnetism.) There, they condensed into small grains. The heavier elements stayed close to the Sun. They also condensed into small grains.
These grains played Bumper Cars to form bigger and bigger lumps of material called planetesimals. Eventually, like your Uncle Ed the couch potato, the lumps got so large that their gravity caused them to form spheres. Unlike your Uncle Ed the couch potato, these larger lumps of planetesimals could create magnetic fields. At that point, they became protoplanets.
These protoplanets then turned into the planets we know and love. The terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) make up the inner solar system and are predominantly rocky bodies. The gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) make up the outer solar system and are predominantly gassy bodies. Also like your Uncle Ed the couch potato.
To recap, that's: condensed elements → small grains → planetismals → protoplanets → planets
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Sun was busy fusing hydrogen into helium, and a solar wind swept the rest of the gas out of the solar system.
Check out these videos to learn more about our solar system's origins:
- Stephen Hawking explains the formation of the solar system.
- PBS: Neil deGrasse Tyson on "The Origins of the Solar System"
As you watch, think about:
- How do astronomers think the Solar System formed? What stages did it go through in order to take its present form (with 8 planets orbiting around the Sun)?
- What evidence do we have for how the Solar System formed?
- What questions do scientists still have about this process?
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.3: A Brief History of Time...In Pictures
An event as monumental as the birth of our solar system deserves a baby book, or at least a commemorative portrait, don't you think? Today, you'll be the artist.
Your task: Create a graphic (visual) representation of the birth of the solar system from its beginnings as a gas cloud to its current form, eight planets and all. We don't want to just see it happen, we want you to tell us what we're looking at too. That means for each "step" in your solar system origin story, we'll need a short description of what was going on. You should show at least 4 stages in the Solar System, but we suggest making it a little more detailed so that you guys have an awesomesauce study aid you can use later.
To complete the task, you can use a web or computer-based drawing program, or even a web-based program you like to make a video. Or go way back in time—to Kindergarten, that is—and use good ol' reliable paper and crayons, then snap a picture of it to upload. As long as you can visually and textually depict the birth of the solar system, you're golden.
So break out the water colors—or that little paintbrush icon at the top of your screen—and create an Impressionist painting of the solar system's birth that would make Monet cry...or something.
When you're done, upload your finished work below.
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 10, 11, 12
- Course Type: Elective
Algebra I—Semester A
Algebra I—Semester B
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4