|Exploring the Universe: From Mars to the Stars (and Galaxies)
In this non-technical course, we will explore the remarkable realms beyond Earth that our telescopes are revealing. We start with the eerie and beautiful planets and moons that share the Sun with us. Then we explore the other stars and glowing clouds (nebulae) in our home galaxy (the Milky Way) and expand our vista to the universe of galaxies stretching in all directions away from us in space and time.
We look in particular at those “tourist sights” that can tell us something about the past and future of Earth and humanity. We conclude with a look at the question of whether we are the only intelligent life in the cosmos, or whether we might be able to contact others out there who think and wonder as we do.
Week One - Overview: A “Tourist Tour” of the Universe: what’s out there - Slide tour of some of the most beautiful astronomical scenes from space telescopes, planetary probes, and the largest telescopes on Earth; Orienting students to the three realms of astronomy: solar system, Galaxy, universe; Basic definitions and examples for the study of astronomy; why we need telescopes and what they do
Week 2 - The Solar System Revealed: What our Probes Are Showing - Mars and Venus (our neighbors couldn’t be more different); Jupiter and Saturn (the giant planets and their rings); Enticing Moons (Io, Europa, Titan, Ganymede, Triton); Pluto and the realm of the ice dwarfs) [focus on what we are learning from the New Horizons encounter];
Week 3 - What Makes the Sun Shine (and Keep on Shining) - Introducing the stars (their characteristics and diversity); The energy mechanism of the stars (nuclear fusion); The birth of stars; Exoplanets – thousands of planets found around other stars
Week 4 - The Life Story of the Stars (from Birth to Death) - Organizing ideas about the stars (mass and lifetime related; Stages in the life of a star; Why stars are not forever: the death of stars; White dwarfs, black dwarfs, neutron star, supernova; What were the atoms in your body doing 8 billion years ago and why you should care
Week 5 - Black Holes and Galaxies (the organization of the universe) - How black holes form; Why falling into a black hole is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; Discovering stellar-mass black holes; The universe of galaxies; Supermassive black holes and galaxies
Week 6 - The Big Bang (where it came from, where it’s going) and the Search for Intelligent Life Among the Stars - Discovery and explanation of the expanding universe; The beginning of the universe – the big bang theory; The ultimate fate of the universe – the discovery of acceleration; SETI – the search for intelligent life among the stars
This course is designed to acquaint those with an interest in astronomy (but no background in science) with the latest discoveries and ideas in our exploration of the universe. It is non-technical and nonmathematical. The goal is to give a broad-brush overview of the different realms of the universe as we understand them in the second decade of the 21st century. Another aim is to show how humanity’s presence on Earth is the result of cosmic developments over many billions of years – how the universe has evolved to make us possible.
Andrew Fraknoi is a retired Professor and former Chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College, and a Senior Educator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He served as the Society’s Executive Director (1978-1992) and created several NSF-funded national astronomy education programs for them. He was lead author of “Voyages through the Universe,” an introductory college-level textbook, published by Cengage for years. Now it is being made available electronically through the OpenStax project at Rice University.
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