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Space: the final frontier.

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explain strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before…

Astronomy provides a glimpse into the vast and ever-expanding beauty of space. This event will leave the safety of the solar system and instead focus on stars and galaxies that are light years away, requiring you to learn what is essentially an entirely new set of rules governing life out in space. From the birth and death of stars, to the possibility of life on distant exoplanets, to the new stars and supernovae that the Hubble Space Telescope finds every day, I hope that the breadth of topics in Astronomy excites rather than daunts you and leaves you in awe of our place in this universe.


The event can be roughly divided into three types of questions: concept-based, calculation-based, and identification.

  1. Concept questions will ask you to explain or apply the terms outlined in section 3a of the rules. Test-writers love asking about the H-R diagram, and you will need to know not only how to read the diagram but also how to plot points on it based on the type of object (ex. where do RR Lyrae stars go on the H-R diagram? Cepheids?) or other given characteristics (ex. temperature, luminosity). Stellar evolution is also a beloved topic, and a general understanding of the whole process as well as details surrounding the birth and evolution of the focus area will be extremely useful.
  2. Calculation questions require application of equations or qualitative relationships outlined in section 3b to determine a value. Notably, Kepler's Laws, parallax, and the distance modulus are fundamental relationships for any Astronomy focus topic and it's extremely rare to find all of them missing from any Astronomy test. For more complicated applications of equations, it may be useful to include sample calculations in your study guide to remind yourself of how to solve the problem! This was especially useful for me personally when applying Kepler's laws for binary systems.
  3. Identification questions will require the identification of the DSOs (deep space objects) in section 3c from pictures or descriptions, as well as a thorough understanding of each DSO's unique characteristics. Be sure to compile multiple images per DSO and images taken with different wavelengths in your study guide, as questions can and will often present a picture taken outside the visible light spectrum and ask what wavelength the picture was taken in. Moreover, not all identification questions will give you a picture of the DSO itself; they can quiz you based on a graph of the light curve, for example. DSO lists are often picked based on recent news or some novel mechanism introduced with its discovery, and it's important to know not only what each DSO looks like but also what makes it unique.

Often, tests will mix these types of questions and, for example, ask you to identify a DSO from its light curve, use the light curve and other given information to calculate its mass and surface temperature, and plot the DSO on the H-R diagram.

While the concepts outlined in section 3 of the rules seem broad enough already, you can expect to find plenty of questions on topics that are tangentially related to the enumerated concepts. While it may be useful to go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and copy any linked article on a certain page into your study guide, remember that quality trumps quantity: a detailed understanding of one concept can allow you to infer how a related mechanism works, whereas cursory copy-and-pasting can leave you with hundreds of pages that you've never read and forgot existed. (Many a time I look up a question I got wrong on the test and realize that I actually had the information in some area of my study guide that I forgot about…) Of course, this is a balance that is left up to you!

Speaking of study guides, Astronomy generously grants you the choice between two computers, one binder of any size and one computer, or two binders to use as study guides during the test. I have personally preferred using computers for Astronomy for their Ctrl+F capabilities and easy editing (and to save trees and printer ink), however teams can definitely make binders work. More important than medium, you need to know how to use your study guide and how information is organized. For reference, my personal organization involves three separate documents for the three types of questions as listed above, and alphabetical organization within subsections (ex. stellar evolution subsection, H-R diagram subsection) in each document.

Of course, the best way to figure out what information you’re missing out of this vast vacuum of space and to know your study guide better is to use it! Practice tests are the way to go.

During the Competition

Dividing the test is a go-to tactic in any Science Olympiad event, and Astronomy is no exception. Partnerships may decide to have one member specialize in concept/ID and one in calculation (or whatever division of your choice). For crafty test-writers who mix question types throughout the test, half-and-half then trade may be a better choice.

If one question is eating up too much of your time without significant progress, circle it and come back later. Working on other problems may help warm up your brain so that you can finish that problem more quickly when you return!

There are many questions that may seem unfamiliar at first glance, but remember that you don't need to know the answer to everything word-for-word. Application of your existing knowledge (oh no, I can't just copy information off my study guide??) can take you further than you think, earning partial credit at the very least.

Some Helpful Resources

The Chandra X-ray Observatory Youtube channel uploads a series of webinars every year breaking down the Science Olympiad event (videos for the 2019 season can be found here. Their videos are a good introduction to the breadth of the event, however I believe that you need to search deeper for the depth that test questions usually require of you.

It may be tempting to grab all your information from Wikipedia; however their entries on DSOs especially are often lacking. Chandra’s website provides DSO images in multiple wavelengths, a short article about its unique characteristics, and an easy-to-read factsheet. For even more DSO images, Google Images is a pretty safe bet, and it also tends to be the place that test writers pull their images from as well. The picture on the test may be the exact same one you have saved in your study guide!

You are probably no stranger to the Formula Sheet on, which gives an excellent overview to many relevant equations. However, be careful of units when using the equations. For example, the Kepler’s 3rd Law equation on the formula sheet requires period to be in years and distance in AU, omitting the (GM)/(4pi^2) constant that usually appears when using MKS units. Double check your equations with other sources, which may also give you novel insights about the applications of those equations. Again, sample calculations with complex equations may be useful.

Golden Gate Science Olympiad

    Golden Gate Science Olympiad is run by Golden Gate Science League, a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

    Questions? Interested in sponsoring? Joining us as a student at Stanford or UC Berkeley next year? Shoot us an email to get involved with our team!

    Science Olympiad invitational run by UC Berkeley and Stanford University students. Coming 2019.