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ASTRONOMY: DEFINITION AND HISTORY

Humans have long gazed toward the heavens, searching to put meaning and order to the universe
around them. Although the movement of constellations — patterns imprinted on the night sky —
were the easiest to track, other celestial events such as eclipses and the motion of planets were also
charted and predicted.

Definition of astronomy: Astronomy is the study of the sun, moon, stars, planets, comets, gas,
galaxies, gas, dust and other non-Earthly bodies and phenomena. In curriculum for K-4 students,
NASA defines astronomy as simple "the study of stars, planets and space." Astronomy and astrology
were historically associated, but astrology is not a science and is no longer recognized as having
anything to do with astronomy. Below we discuss the history of astronomy and related fields of
study, including cosmology.

Historically, astronomy has focused on observations of heavenly bodies. It is a close cousin to


astrophysics. Succinctly put, astrophysics involves the study of the physics of astronomy and
concentrates on the behavior, properties and motion of objects out there. However, modern
astronomy includes many elements of the motions and characteristics of these bodies, and the two
terms are often used interchangeably today.

Modern astronomers tend to fall into two fields: the theoretical and the observational.

 Observational astronomers focus on direct study of stars, planets, galaxies, and so forth.
 Theoretical astronomers model and analyze how systems may have evolved.

Unlike most other fields of science, astronomers are unable to observe a system entirely from birth to
death; the lifetime of worlds, stars, and galaxies span millions to billions of years. Instead,
astronomers must rely on snapshots of bodies in various stages of evolution to determine how they
formed, evolved and died. Thus, theoretical and observational astronomy tend to blend together, as
theoretical scientists use the information actually collected to create simulations, while the
observations serve to confirm the models — or to indicate the need for tweaking them.

Astronomy is broken down into a number of subfields, allowing scientists to specialize in particular
objects and phenomena.

Planetary astronomers (also called planetary scientists) focus on the growth, evolution, and
death of planets. While most study the worlds inside the solar system, some use the growing body of
evidence about planets around other stars to hypothesize what they might be like. According to
the University College London, planetary science "is a cross-discipline field including aspects of
astronomy, atmospheric science, geology, space physics, biology and chemistry."
Stellar astronomers turn their eyes to the stars, including the black holes, nebulae, white dwarfs
and supernova that survive stellar deaths. The University of California, Los Angeles, says, "The focus
of stellar astronomy is on the physical and chemical processes that occur in the universe."
Solar astronomers spend their time analyzing a single star — our sun. According to NASA, "The
quantity and quality of light from the sun varies on time scales from milli-seconds to billions of
years." Understanding those changes can help scientists recognize how Earth is affected. The sun
also helps us to understand how other stars work, as it is the only star close enough to reveal details
about its surface.
Galactic astronomers study our galaxy, the Milky Way, while extragalactic astronomers peer
outside of it to determine how these collections of stars form, change, and die. The University of
Wisconsin-Madison says, "Establishing patterns in the distribution, composition, and physical
conditions of stars and gas traces the history of our evolving home galaxy."
Cosmologists focus on the universe in its entirety, from its violent birth in the Big Bang to its
present evolution, all the way to its eventual death. Astronomy is often (not always) about very
concrete, observable things, whereas cosmology typically involves large-scale properties of the
universe and esoteric, invisible and sometimes purely theoretical things like string theory, dark matter
and dark energy, and the notion of multiple universes.
Astronomical observers rely on different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (from radio
waves to visible light and on up to X-rays and gamma-rays) to study the wide span of objects in the
universe. The first telescopes focused on simple optical studies of what could be seen with the naked
eye, and many telescopes continue that today.

But as light waves become more or less energetic, they move faster or slower. Different telescopes
are necessary to study the various wavelengths. More energetic radiation, with shorter wavelengths,
appears in the form of ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma-ray wavelengths, while less energetic objects
emit longer-wavelength infrared and radio waves.

Astrometry, the most ancient branch of astronomy, is the measure of the sun, moon and planets.
The precise calculations of these motions allows astronomers in other fields to model the birth and
evolution of planets and stars, and to predict events such as eclipses meteor showers, and the
appearance of comets. According to the Planetary Society, "Astrometry is the oldest method used to
detect extrasolar planets," though it remains a difficult process.
Early astronomers noticed patterns in the sky and attempted to organize them in order to track
and predict their motion. Known as constellations, these patterns helped people of the past to
measure the seasons. The movement of the stars and other heavenly bodies was tracked around the
world, but was prevalent in China, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Central America and India.
The image of an astronomer is a lone soul at a telescope during all hours of the night. In reality,
most hard-core astronomy today is done with observations made at remote telescopes — on the
ground or in space — that are controlled by computers, with astronomers studying computer-
generated data and images.
Since the advent of photography, and particularly digital photography, astronomers have
provided amazing pictures of space that not only inform science but enthrall the public.
Astronomers and spaceflight programs also contribute to the study of our own planet, when missions
primed at looking outward (or travelling to the moon and beyond) look back and snap great pictures
of Earth from space.
History of Astronomy
Ancient civilizations believed their gods lived in the skies, and so early astronomy was often
a mix of detailed observations of the celestual heavens and religion. As well as a method of trying
to divine the will of the gods, astronomy also allowed for more practical applications, such as
predicting the cycle of the seasons for farming, measuring time and as a directional compass.
By 5000 BCE, ancient peoples had started constructing sun observatories, such as the Neolithic Era
‘Goseck circle’, to accurately measure the heavens. The Sumerians and Babylonians then kep some of
the earliest astronomical records yet found , containing lists of bright stars, names of
various constellations, and the movement of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and
Saturn.

By 3,000 BCE the Egyptians had a fairly accurate calendar with the year divided into 365 days, or 12
‘months’ of 30 days and an extra five days added on at the end of the year as feast days. Other parts
of the world, too, were carefully studying the heavens and in 2137 BC the Chinese recorded the
earliest known solar eclipse.

Nevertheless, astronomy still remained closely tied to astrology and it wasn’t until 600 BCE onwards
that Greeks such as Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Plato, and Aristotle helped turn astronomy from
mere observation to being a theoretical science concerned with the structure of the universe. They
also used mathematics, geometry and trigonometry to help explain the reasons for the motions of
the Cosmos. Despite Aristrachus of Samos in 280 BCE then suggesting the first heliocentric
theory whereby it was the Earth and planets which revolved around a stationary Sun at the center
of the Universe, his theory was not generally accepted and Ptolemy further refined the accepted
geocentric model in his 140 A.D masterpiece ‘Almagest,’ which was used by the western world for the
next 1500 years.
Modern astronomy began to take shape during the time of The Renaissance, desite fierce
protestations by the Church. In 1543, Copernicus published his “De Revolutionibus Orbium
Coelestium” which used empirical evidence to support a heliocentric view of the Universe, while
Tycho Brahe compiled detailed observations on the positions of the planets. In around 1605, four
years after Brahe’s death, his assistant and successor Johannes Kepler observed that the planets
moved in elliptical orbits around the Sun, and so proposed his three laws of planetary motion.
Galileo then added to the growing body of scientific astronomy data by using the newly
invented telescope to make some incredible astronomical observations, including viewing Jupiter‘s
rotating moon system, and noting there were obviously objects in the heavens which didn’t revolve
around the Earth. By 1687, Sir Isaac Newton invented a new telescope which used a curved mirror
instead of a lens to look further into space, and published his hugely influential book called
‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.’ Newton agreed that the Earth rotated around the Sun
and also established the law of universal gravitation, which ushered in a new Age of physics and
Enlightenment.
Since then mankind has done a pretty thorough job mapping the stars, planets and their moons, and
compiling a whole catalogue of astronomical objects and predicting their nature. In 1798 for
instance, Laplace proposed the concept of Black Holes, and by 1817 Charles Messier had compiled
a list of 103 deep sky objects he identified as not comets, and which included nebulae, star clusters,
and galaxies.
Astrophysics received a major boost in 1900 when Max Planck invented quantum mechanics
and Einstein’s two theories of Special and General Relativity changed the way we viewed the
structure of space-time and gravity forever.
By the mid-1900’s Edwin Hubble had proved that galaxies were separate systems outside of our own
Milky Way and that the Universe was expanding. Mankind has now walked on the moon,
established Space Stations in orbit around the Earth and discovered hundreds of planets outside of
our solar system.
General Astronomy - Telescopes and Spacecraft

How far can the Hubble telescope see?

The Hubble Space Telescope can see out to a distance of several billions of light-years. A light-year is
the distance that light travels in 1 year. Since light has a speed of 186,000 miles per second (light
can travel about 7 times around the entire earth in 1 second!), light travels about 5,865,696,000,000
miles in just one year. You can attach 9 more zeros to the end of this to get 1 billion light-years and
another one for 10 billion light-years. The farthest that Hubble has seen so far is about 10-15 billion
light-years away. The farthest area looked at is now called the Hubble Deep Field. This area shows a
tremendous number of new galaxies, some were so young that they were just being formed.
Remember that the farther away an object is from you, the further back in time you see it. For
example, our sun is 8 light-minutes away, so it takes light 8 minutes to reach us from the sun and so
we see the sun as it was 8 minutes ago. The nearest star, besides the sun, is called Alpha Centauri
and is 4.3 light-years away. Thus we see it as it was 4.3 years ago. We are seeing several of the
Hubble Deep Field galaxies as they were billions of years ago because this is how long it took for
their light to reach us.

How much does the Space Shuttle weigh?

The shuttle weighs 165,000 pounds empty. The external tank weighs 78,100 pounds empty. The two
solid rocket boosters weigh 185,000 pounds empty each. But then you have to load in the fuel. Each
SRB holds 1.1 million pounds of fuel. The external tank holds 143,000 gallons of liquid oxygen
(1,359,000 pounds) and 383,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen (226,000 pounds). The whole vehicle -
shuttle, external tank, solid rocket booster casings and all the fuel - has a total weight of 4.4 million
pounds at launch. 4.4 million pounds to get 165,000 pounds in orbit is a pretty big difference! To be
fair, the shuttle can also carry a 65,000 pounds payload (up to 15 x 60 feet in size), but it is still a big
difference. The fuel weighs almost 20 times more than the Shuttle.

What tools do astronomers use and what do these tools do?

The main tools used by astronomers are telescopes, spectrographs, spacecrafts, cameras, and
computers. Astronomers use many different types of telescopes to observe objects in the Universe.
Some are located right here on earth and some are sent into space. Just about everything we know
about the Universe comes from the study of the light emitted by objects in space. Astronomers use
these tools (especially telescopes) very often. Astronomers also use a lot of physics and mathematics
in their work.

Telescopes are used to gather light from distant objects and let us see them "up close."
Spectrographs break the light up into a "spectrum" which shows us the chemical fingerprints of
elements in space and tells us the temperature, composition and velocity of stars, planets, galaxies
and nebulae. Cameras are used to gather images. They are connected to telescopes and are placed
onboard spacecraft to get pictures of objects in our solar system. Computers are used to analyze the
data received from telescopes and spacecraft.

Who took Neil Armstrong's picture when he first set foot on the moon?

The pictures were taken by a camera mounted on the Lunar Module.

What U.S. city had the first planetarium in the western hemisphere?

The Adler planetarium in Chicago, Illinois was the first planetarium built in the western hemisphere.
It was constructed in 1930.

How did Johannes Kepler do his calculations of orbital motion without the use the
instruments we have available today?

Kepler was a student of Tycho Brahe who used new (at the time) instruments to measure angles and
positions of objects in space. There were no telescopes at the time so all of this was done by eye.
Tycho gathered a vast amount of data for the time. Kepler used Tycho's data, mathematics, and the
concept of force to figure out that planets have elliptical orbits.

How are the distances to objects in space measured?

There are a variety of methods used to determine the distances to objects in space. For close
objects, geometric parallax is used. For more distant objects, "standard candles" such as supernovae
and Cepheids are used. Standard candles are objects whose real brightness can be closely estimated.
By knowing how bright an object really is, and comparing this to how bright it appears from the
Earth, we can estimate a distance.
Important Dates in The Timeline Of
Astronomy
Since prehistoric times our ancestors gazed up towards the celestial heavens and observed the
movements of the Sun, Moon and stars. Not surprisingly, astronomy is probably the oldest science
known to man and over the passing centuries our understanding of the Universe has developed
gradually to reach the considerable level of knowledge we possess today. What follows are some key
dates in the timeline of astronomy:
32,500+ BCE: During the Upper Paleolithic period, early people would keep track of the Moon‘s
phases by engraving lines onto animal bones, and it has also been suggested that they might
similarly have memorialized certain star patterns in the same way. One famous example includes a
small piece of a mammoth tusk discovered in the Ach Valley in Germany dated between 32,500 and
38,000 years old which is purported to depict the constellation of Orion.
10,000+ BCE: To early humans, the sky was where the gods dwelt and so early priests were holy
men who interpreted their divine will through a careful study of astronomy mixed with religion.
Astronomy was also an important component of human life, as it could be used as a method to
predict the cycle of the seasons for agricultural purposes, as well as for measuring time and direction.
This became especially important with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution during the Mesolithic
to Neolithic period around 12,500 years ago.
4,900 BCE: The Goseck Circle in Germany, consisting of four concentric circles, a mound and two
wooden stakes, is believed to be the world’s earliest Sun observatory enabling ancient people to
accurately measure its path during the course of a solar year.
2,000-3,000 BCE: During this period in Mesopotamia, the constellations of Leo, Taurus, Scorpius,
Gemini, Capricorn, and Sagittarius were invented, with these zodiac constellations also marking the
path of the Sun, Moon, and planets throughout the year. The earliest astronomical records and star
catalogs were kept by the Sumerians, then Babylonians, with the earliest known clay tablets
recording the position of the planets, and solar eclipses dating to around 1600 BCE.
2,500 BCE: The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, was a sacred place of
worship and is aligned to mark the summer and winter solstices.
2,137 BCE: Chinese record earliest known solar eclipse.
1,450 BCE: The Egyptians start to use sundials.
800 BCE: Indian astronomer Yajnavalkya proposes a heliocentric concept of the universe in which
the Earth is spherical and the Sun is at “the centre of the spheres.”
600 to 130 BCE: Greeks first to develop astronomy from being an observational science related to
religion into a theoretical science about the structure of the universe. Pioneers during this period
include Pythagoras, Thales, Plato and Aristotle who proposed a geocentric model of the Universe with
the Sun circling the Earth.
450 BCE: Greek philosopher Anaxagoras suggest that the stars are actually suns, similar to our
own, but located at such vast distances that we are unable to feel their heat back on Earth. His
theory attracted disapproval from religious groups, though, and he was subsequently exiled from
Athens.
280 BCE: Greek astronomer Aristrachus of Samos suggests a heliocentric theory of the universe,
whereby it was the Earth and planets which revolved around a stationary Sun. However, his theory
was not popular and it would be nearly 1800 years before it would finally be accepted.
150 BCE: Ancient astronomical computer, the Antikythera mechanismconstructed in ancient
Greece capable of predicting star and planet positions, as well as lunar and solar eclipses.
(reproduced opposite)
150 A.D: Ptolemy further refined the original geocentric model in his masterpiece ‘Almagest,’ which
listed 48 constellations, and chartered the motions of the stars and planets.
1543 A.D: During the Renaissance period modern astronomy began to take shape when Copernicus
published his “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” which used empirical evidence to revive
Aristrachus’ heliocentric view of the Universe,
1576 A.D: Tycho Brahe compiles accurate and comprehensive observations on the positions of the
planets to further credit the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic one.
1605 A.D: Johannes Kepler discovered that the planets orbit about the Sun in an elliptical and not
circular motion, and so proposed his three laws of planetary motion.
1608 A.D: Dutch spectacles maker Hans Lippershey invents a refractor telescope.
1609 A.D: Galileo used the newly invented telescope to make some incredible astronomical
observations, including viewing Jupiter’s rotating moon system, and noting there were obviously
objects in the heavens which didn’t revolve around the Earth. Galileo’s attempts to defend the
heliocentric model of the universe landed him in direct conflict with the powerful church. In 1632 he
was tried for heresy, forced to recant and condemned to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
1668 A.D: Sir Isaac Newton invented the first reflecting telescope which used a curved mirror
instead of a lens to look further into space. Newton later publishes his hugely influential book called
‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ in which he agrees that the Earth rotates around
the Sun and explains the reasons behind Kepler’s three laws. He also establishes the law of universal
gravitation, which ushered in a new Age of physics and Enlightenment.
1781 A.D: Messier discovers and catalogs numerous galaxies, nebula and star clusters.
1798 A.D: Laplace proposes the concept of Black Holes.
1905 A.D: Albert Einstein introduces special Theory of Relativity then in 1916 his general Theory
of Relativity.
1923 A.D: Edwin Hubble working at Mount Wilson Observatory (photo) and using a 60 inch reflector
telescope proves that galaxies are separate systems outside of our own Milky Way and that the
Universe was expanding.
1937 A.D: First radio telescope built in the USA by Grote Reber.
1957 A.D: Russian Sputnik 1 satellite becomes the first man-made object to orbit the Earth marking
the beginning of the space age.
1969 A.D: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
1977 A.D: Voyager 1 spacecraft launched to explore the outer solar system.
1990 A.D: The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is put into orbit from space shuttle Discovery. The
2.4m aperture reflecting telescope continues to circle the Earth taking extremely sharp images of
outer space.
1992 A.D: Radio astronomer Wolszczan and Frail announce the discovery of the first definitive
detection of exoplanets. Over the intervening years hundreds of planets outside of our solar system
have now been confirmed.