Astronomy (Greek: αστρονομία = άστρον + νόμος, astronomia = astron + nomos, literally, "law of the stars") is the science of celestial objects (e.g., stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere (e.g., auroras and cosmic background radiation). It is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.
Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences. Astronomers of early civilizations performed methodical observations of the night sky, and astronomical artifacts have been found from much earlier periods. However, it required the invention of the telescope before astronomy developed into a modern science.
Since the 20th century, the field of professional astronomy has split into observational astronomy and theoretical astrophysics. Observational astronomy is concerned with acquiring data, which involves building and maintaining instruments, as well as processing the results. Theoretical astrophysics is concerned with ascertaining the observational implications of computer or analytic models. The two fields complement each other, with theoretical astronomy seeking to explain the observational results. Astronomical observations can be used to test fundamental theories in physics, such as general relativity.
Historically, amateur astronomers have contributed to many important astronomical discoveries, and astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can still play an active role, especially in the discovery and observation of transient phenomena.
Modern astronomy is not to be confused with astrology, the belief system that claims human affairs are correlated with the positions of celestial objects. Although the two fields share a common origin, most thinkers in both fields believe they are now distinct.
In early times, astronomy only comprised the observation and predictions of the motions of the naked-eye objects. In some locations, such as Stonehenge, early cultures assembled massive artifacts that likely had some astronomical purpose. In addition to their ceremonial uses, these observatories could be employed to determine the seasons, an important factor in knowing when to plant crops, as well as the length of the year.
As civilizations developed, most notably Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, ancient Greece, India, and China, astronomical observatories were assembled and ideas on the nature of the universe began to be explored. Early ideas on the motions of the planets were developed, and the nature of the Sun, Moon and the Earth in the universe were explored philosophically. The Earth was believed to be the centre of the universe with the Sun, the Moon and the stars rotating around it. This is what is known as the geocentric model of the universe.
A few notable astronomical discoveries were made prior to the application of the telescope. For example, the obliquity of the ecliptic was estimated as early as 1,000 B.C by the Chinese. The Chaldeans discovered that eclipses recurred in a repeating cycle known as a saros. In the second century B.C., the size and distance of the Moon were estimated by Hipparchus.
During the Middle Ages, observational astronomy was mostly stagnant in medieval Europe until the 13th century. However, observational astronomy flourished in the Persian Empire and other parts of the Islamic world. Islamic astronomers introduced many names that are now used for individual stars.
During the Renaissance, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the Solar System. His work was defended, expanded upon, and corrected by Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. Galileo added the innovation of using telescopes to enhance his observations.
Kepler was the first to devise a system that described correctly the details of the motion of the planets with the Sun at the center. However, Kepler did not succeed in formulating a theory behind the laws he wrote down. It was left to Newton's invention of celestial dynamics and his law of gravitation to finally explain the motions of the planets. Newton also developed the reflecting telescope.
Further discoveries paralleled the improvements in size and quality of the telescope. More extensive star calatogues were produced by Lacaille. The astronomer William Herschel made an extensive catalog of nebulosity and clusters, and in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus, the first new planet found. The distance to a star was first announced in 1838 when the parallax of 61 Cygni was measured by Friedrich Bessel.
During the nineteenth century, attention to the three body problem by Euler, Clairaut and D'Alembert led to more accurate predictions about the motions of the Moon and planets. This work was further refined by Lagrance and Laplace, allowing the masses of the planets and moons to be estimated from their perturbations.
Significant advances in astronomy came about with the introduction of new technology, including the spectroscope and photography. Fraunhofer discovered about 600 bands in the spectrum of the Sun in 1814-15, which, in 1859, Kirchhoff ascribed to the presence of different elements. Stars were proven to be similar to Earth's own sun, but with a wide range of temperatures, masses, and sizes.
The existence of Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way, as a separate group of stars was only proved in the 20th century, along with the existence of "external" galaxies, and soon after, the expansion of the universe, seen in the recession of most galaxies from us. Modern astronomy has also discovered many exotic objects such as quasars, pulsars, blazars and radio galaxies, and has used these observations to develop physical theories which describe some of these objects in terms of equally exotic objects such as black holes and neutron stars. Physical cosmology made huge advances during the 20th century, with the model of the Big Bang heavily supported by the evidence provided by astronomy and physics, such as the cosmic microwave background radiation, Hubble's law, and cosmological abundances of elements.
In Babylon and ancient Greece, astronomy consisted largely of astrometry, measuring the positions of stars and planets in the sky. Later, the work of astronomers Kepler and Newton led to the development of celestial mechanics, and astronomy focused on mathematically predicting the motions of gravitationally interacting celestial bodies. This was applied to solar system objects in particular. Today, the motions and positions of objects are more easily determined, and modern astronomy concentrates on observing and understanding the physical nature of celestial objects.
Methods of data collection
In astronomy, information is mainly received from the detection and analysis of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Other cosmic rays are also observed, and several experiments are designed to detect gravitational waves in the near future. Neutrino detectors have been used to observe solar neutrinos, and neutrino emissions from supernovae have also been detected.
A traditional division of astronomy is given by the region of the electromagnetic spectrum observed. At the low frequency end of the spectrum, radio astronomy detects radiation of millimeter to dekameter wavelength. The radio telescope receivers are similar to those used in radio broadcast transmission but much more sensitive. Microwaves form the millimeter end of the radio spectrum and are important for studies of the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Infrared astronomy and far infrared astronomy deal with the detection and analysis of infrared radiation (wavelengths longer than red light). The most common tool is the telescope but using a detector which is sensitive to the infrared. Infrared radiation is heavily absorbed by atmospheric water vapor, so infrared observatories have to be located in high, dry places or in outer space. Space telescopes in particular avoid atmospheric thermal emission, atmospheric opacity, and the negative effects of astronomical seeing at infrared and other wavelengths. Infrared is particularly useful for observation of galactic regions cloaked by dust.
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