Astronomy Projects

With contributions by John Sohl, Shane Larson, and Daniel Schroeder

The heart and soul of astronomy is observing. You must look at the sky to become familiar with the sky. Part of your experience in this class will be book-learning, but another part will be actually going out and looking at the sky yourself. There are a variety of activities that can be done, and the contents of this guide are by no means an exhaustive list. Read through and find something that is of interest to you, and then go out and see the sky!

Observing Safety

Many observing projects can be done from your own back yard, but sometimes it is necessary or more convenient to find a location away from city lights. When observing at night, it is always best to do it with a friend or in a group. (However, you should not let someone else do your observing for you. You must make your own observations and notes and write your own report!) If you need help coordinating the opportunity to observe at night with a group, see your instructor. Do not observe alone at night if you do not feel safe!

Observing Equipment

The equipment you'll need depends on which observing project you choose, but may include several of the following:

Observing Records

The most important element of recording astronomical observations is making sure all the critical information gets written down and can easily be found at a later time when you go back to your records for analysis.

Certain information is always needed with every observation you make. This includes:

Different observing projects may require different types of record keeping. A project involving simple star counts may require only a detailed table of data, while other projects will require more elaborate notes and sketches.

Observing records are also somewhat like a running astronomical diary, keeping record of all your experiences while out observing. Did you get lost on your way? Did you meet someone who had never looked at the Moon through binoculars before, and took a peek through yours? Did the Ogden Police stop by to ask why you were looking at the sky through a paper towel tube? Did a herd of deer wander past the telescope and freak you out? Write these experiences down!


Reports on observing projects should be well organized and neatly typed, with the following elements in the writeup.

Please do not encase your report in a plastic binder or other unnecessary frills.


Working with a classmate on a project is a good idea not only for safety, but also so you can share ideas and advice, and perhaps have a helper to assist with taking notes or holding a flashlight. However, you must make all your observations with your own eyes, and you must write your own report. If you wish to share a camera for a photographic project, you must consult with your instructor in advance; typically you will then be required to take twice as many photos. In all cases, if you work with someone else, you must name that person in your report and explain exactly how you helped each other.

List of Projects

The following list of projects comes from a variety of sources. Many are traditional projects that have been done by millions of people around the world, and others have been developed more recently. For this course you must choose two different projects from the list. Click on the links to find detailed instructions for each project.

Note that some of these projects must be done over long periods of time, so plan ahead and start early! Also note that all of the projects require clear weather, and that some projects can be done only during certain phases of the moon.

  1. Sun Journal. Observe the position of the rising or setting sun over a period of two months. For this project you need to be at the same location for each observation. You'll need to make at least one observation every two weeks, being somewhat flexible about the exact day to allow for cloudy days. This is a long-term project so be sure to start early! Click here for full instructions.
  2. Moon Journal. Observe the phase of the moon as many days as possible over the course of a month. For this project your observations can be made at any time of the day when the moon and the sun are both visible, and from any location. You can start at any time but you must make at least a dozen observations, spread over an entire month. Click here for full instructions.
  3. Measure the Size of the Earth. Build a simple device to measure angles accurately, and use it to measure the position of the north star from two locations. This is a great project if you're planning a trip of at least 150 miles north or south. The observations require only a few minutes each from two locations, but the night sky must be clear. Click here for full instructions.
  4. Measure the Size of the Sun. Construct a simple pinhole projection device and use it to determine the sun's diameter. This project can be done on any sunny day. Click here for full instructions.
  5. Count the Stars. Aim a cardboard tube at the sky and count how many stars you see through it, from three different locations. This project requires a couple hours of observing on a single clear night with little or no moonlight. You'll need to drive to different locations, including one location that is at least a half hour away from civilization. Click here for full instructions.
  6. Observe the Moons of Jupiter. Follow in Galileo's footsteps! Observe the moons of Jupiter over a period of a few nights, using a small telescope such as the new Galileoscope. This project can be done from almost any location. Click here for full instructions.
  7. Photograph Circumpolar Stars. Make a series of photographs of the North Star and surrounding stars, either over one long night or over the course of two months, to show the stars' apparent rotation. (A wide variety of cameras, though not all, can be used for this project.) Click here for full instructions.
  8. Photograph Star Trails. This is a great project if you have a digital SLR camera or an SLR film camera, plus a tripod and a way to keep the camera shutter open for several minutes. You'll take a few long-exposure photos to show the apparent motion of the stars, and measure the rate at which they appear to move. You must make your photographs from a reasonably dark location when the moon isn't too bright. (Because this project overlaps with the Circumpolar Stars project, please do not choose both.) Click here for full instructions.
  9. Photograph Planetary Motion. Photograph the motion of a planet, with respect to the background stars, over the course of several weeks. A digital camera is best for this project, although it doesn't have to be especially fancy. Please see your instructor for details if you are interested in this project.
  10. Photograph the Milky Way. For this project you need a digital SLR camera and tripod, or an SLR film camera with a tracking mount (which you can make yourself). You also need to travel to a very dark site on a clear, moonless night. Please see your instructor for details if you are interested in this project.
In all cases, be sure to follow the links to the detailed project instructions (or consult with your instructor). If you would like to design your own project that is not on this list, please consult with your instructor.

Grading Scheme

In grading your project report, your instructor will ask questions like these: Each project report is worth a maximum score of 20 points. Here are some hypothetical examples of various scores and the reasons for them: