Practical Observational Astronomy from the Sierra Nevada

General Description

This field-based laboratory course provides an opportunity for students to understand our place in the universe. Using the naked eye, binoculars, and large telescopes, we will explore celestial objects including the solar system, the stars, the Milky Way, and other galaxies. Set within a beautiful national forest in the mountains far from bright city lights, the Field Campus area has the dark sky ideal for observing deep-sky objects and meteors. Throughout the course we will stress hands-on use of telescopes and their accessories. Students will learn how to use star charts and atlases and the setting circles of an equatorial mounting to locate faint celestial objects.

This course is especially helpful to beginning amateur astronomers who may now be having difficulty finding anything but the moon and brighter planets to observe. Educators may use this course to maintain their science accreditation. Students enroll to receive a letter grade but have the option of switching to credit-no credit grading, or to audit, at the first class meeting.

Course Activities

During the day, students have mornings free to swim, hike, explore nature, or just relax. Afternoon course activities include learning to use your star wheel, star atlases, and astronomical catalogs. Afternoon lab activities involve doing experiments on telescope optics, atomic spectra, galactic structure, and stellar evolution. At night we drive to the Packer saddle area where we have an observation site on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here we conduct naked-eye observations of constellations, sky motion, meteors, and variable stars, and then, with binoculars and telescopes we observe planets, comets, stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies. On Thursday, the last night, the course culminates with a star party at which we show vacationers and area residents the beautiful objects we have learned to observe!

Class Schedule

Afternoon classes are 1:00-5:00 p.m., and evening observing sessions are 8:00-midnight. The first afternoon class on Sunday is at 2 p.m., and Thursday night is the last evening observing session.

Supplies and Other Useful Items

The sun sets at about 20:10 this time of year, and twilight ends about 22:00. Bring lots of WARM CLOTHING (hat, gloves, parka with hood) for the cold, late-night observing sessions, a DIM flashlight with a RED lens (Orion Telescope's "Adjustable Brightness Starlite LED Flashlight" is ideal), notebooks, pens and pencils, and the texts listed below. Although telescopes and binoculars are provided, in order to learn how to use your own equipment, you are encouraged to bring your own if you have it (telescopes, binoculars, and cameras).

Camping gear


Days are warm, even hot, while evenings are quite cold (close to freezing). Clothing that can be layered for variable weather conditions is best. T-shirts and shorts are often perfect during the day, with a wind jacket or raincoat as backup. Long pants, warmer shirts and sweaters with a coat are necessary in the evening. Comfortable shoes, sun hat, wool hat and gloves are important. Old sneakers or rubber boots and a swimsuit may come in handy while visiting marshes.


  • day pack
  • sunscreen
  • insect repellant
  • alarm clock
  • water bottles
  • plastic containers for packed lunches


  • Purchase a copy of "Sky & Telescope" magazine dated for the month in which the course takes place. You will need to shop a month BEFORE the course begins.
  • A northern hemisphere planisphere (also called a star wheel); for example, Chandler's planisphere called The Night Sky 30° - 40° North (available on Amazon or at better book stores).
  • The Bright Star Atlas 2000.0 by Wil Tirion and Brian Skiff; Willmann-Bell Order on their website for $9.95

List of regional Astronomy Links

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