Astronomer Lab

Astronomy labs provide students with hands-on experience in some of the core concepts of astronomy. These activities also introduce students to some of the tools and techniques used by astronomers.

Students use color filters to study the brightness of familiar stars and then plot them on an HR diagram. The lab also helps students understand the importance of scientific notation.


This laboratory is designed to complement the lecture course and provides students with a hands-on experience in constellation identification, telescope work, use of a planetarium, and other basic experimental techniques. Students also learn to analyze astronomical data and write reports. Lab fee required.

The exercises include “Size and Scale” which teaches students to plot familiar astronomical objects on a star chart; “Where Are We?” which helps students map the Milky Way Galaxy’s spiral arms; “Parallax” which compares two photographs of a lamppost taken at different times and determines the distance between them; and “Barnaard’s Star” which demonstrates how to use the proper motion method to calculate the distance of stars from their position on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Also included are narrated pre-lab online lectures recorded using Smart Board and RealProducer Plus technology.

The lab exercises are supported by online instructor resources including an annotated astronomy glossary, classroom-ready astronomical images, and PowerPoint slides for teaching astronomical terms and vocabulary. The lab manual is designed to be a cost effective addition to any introductory astronomy course.


Astronomy labs use observation equipment such as telescopes, binoculars, star charts, spectrometers, and computer software. Observational astronomy, which focuses on recording data about celestial objects, differs from theoretical astronomy, which is concerned with calculating the measurable implications of physical models.

College astronomy kits include all the necessary equipment for students to learn about constellations, planets, stars, and galaxy clusters. The kits also provide information on astronomical observations and the scientific method.

Labs on light and color help students understand how astronomers use filters to collect astronomical data. They view a red and blue theater gel to see how color filtering works and study images of Old Faithful in both optical and infrared to discover that pseudo-color conveys important astronomical information. They also apply Wien’s law to determine the temperature of an artificial object and explore the emission spectra of gases to learn how temperature affects peak wavelength.


The observational part of astronomy focuses on obtaining, analyzing, and interpreting real-time data and archived data. Observational techniques include the use of a telescope, binoculars, and photographic plates. Students also learn to identify celestial objects using a variety of charts and diagrams.

Modern astronomers spend very little time at telescopes (only a few weeks per year) and most of their time is spent analyzing their observations and developing theories about their causes. Observational astronomers can work in a wide variety of environments, from the cold dark dusty regions of galaxies to the hot sexy interiors of stars and black holes.

Historically, astronomy was concerned with the classification and description of heavenly phenomena while astrophysics tried to explain them using physical laws. Today, the lines between the two disciplines have blurred. Astronomers now often refer to themselves as astrophysicists. They are concerned with the laws of physics and chemistry as well as with celestial phenomena. Observational astronomers still use the tools of physics, chemistry, and mathematics to classify and describe their observations of the Universe.


Students learn to analyze, interpret, and present data. This is an important skill for astronomy majors, but also widely applicable to other STEM disciplines. Students also gain skills in writing Python programs to manipulate and visualize data.

Astrophysical phenomena occur in environments radically different from those on Earth. Laboratory work helps astronomers understand how matter behaves under these extreme conditions.

For example, astrochemists study the chemical composition of interstellar clouds and the atmospheres of stars. They also test models of the behavior of neutron stars and black holes. And astronomical observatories collect ever-larger and more complex datasets that require advanced computing to extract scientific insight from. UVA’s astronomy labs enable students to develop these skills on real data from the cosmos.

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