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2: History of Astronomy

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    Much to your surprise, a member of the Flat Earth Society moves in next door. He believes that Earth is flat and all the NASA images of a spherical Earth are either faked or simply show the round (but flat) disk of Earth from above. How could you prove to your new neighbor that Earth really is a sphere? 

    Today, few people really spend much time looking at the night sky. In ancient days, before electric lights robbed so many people of the beauty of the sky, the stars and planets were an important aspect of everyone’s daily life. All the records that we have—on paper and in stone—show that ancient civilizations around the world noticed, worshipped, and tried to understand the lights in the sky and fit them into their own view of the world. These ancient observers found both majestic regularity and never-ending surprise in the motions of the heavens. Through their careful study of the planets, the Greeks and later the Romans laid the foundation of the science of astronomy.

    • 2.1: Ancient Astronomy
      Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle recognized that Earth and the Moon are spheres, and understood the phases of the Moon, but because of their inability to detect stellar parallax, they rejected the idea that Earth moves. Eratosthenes measured the size of Earth with surprising precision. Hipparchus carried out many astronomical observations, making a star catalog, defining the system of stellar magnitudes, and discovering precession from the shift in the position of the north celestial pole
    • 2.2: Astrology vs. Astronomy
      The ancient religion of astrology, with its main contribution to civilization a heightened interest in the heavens, began in Babylonia. It reached its peak in the Greco-Roman world, especially as recorded in the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy. Natal astrology is based on the assumption that the positions of the planets at the time of our birth, as described by a horoscope, determine our future. However, modern tests clearly show that there is no evidence for this, even in a broad statistical sense.
    • 2.3: The Birth of Modern Astronomy
      Nicolaus Copernicus introduced the heliocentric cosmology to Renaissance Europe in his book De Revolutionibus. Although he retained the Aristotelian idea of uniform circular motion, Copernicus suggested that Earth is a planet and that the planets all circle about the Sun, dethroning Earth from its position at the center of the universe. Galileo was the father of both modern experimental physics and telescopic astronomy.
    • 2.4: The Laws of Planetary Motion
      Tycho Brahe’s accurate observations of planetary positions provided the data used by Johannes Kepler to derive his three fundamental laws of planetary motion. Kepler’s laws describe the behavior of planets in their orbits as follows: (1) planetary orbits are ellipses with the Sun at one focus; (2) in equal intervals, a planet’s orbit sweeps out equal areas; and (3) the relationship between the orbital period (P) and the semimajor axis (a) of an orbit is given by \(P^2 = a^3\)
    • 2.5: Newton’s Great Synthesis
      In his Principia, Isaac Newton established the three laws that govern the motion of objects: (1) objects continue to be at rest or move with a constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force; (2) an outside force causes an acceleration (and changes the momentum) for an object; and (3) for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Momentum is a measure of the motion of an object and depends on both its mass and its velocity.
    • 2.6: Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
      Gravity, the attractive force between all masses, is what keeps the planets in orbit. Newton’s universal law of gravitation relates the gravitational force to mass and distance. The force of gravity is what gives us our sense of weight. Unlike mass, which is constant, weight can vary depending on the force of gravity (or acceleration) you feel. When Kepler’s laws are reexamined in the light of Newton’s gravitational law, it becomes clear that the masses of both objects are important.
    • 2.7: Orbits in the Solar System
      The closest point in a satellite orbit around Earth is its perigee, and the farthest point is its apogee (corresponding to perihelion and aphelion for an orbit around the Sun). The planets follow orbits around the Sun that are nearly circular and in the same plane. Most asteroids are found between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt, whereas comets generally follow orbits of high eccentricity.
    • 2.8: Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
      The orbit of an artificial satellite depends on the circumstances of its launch. The circular satellite velocity needed to orbit Earth’s surface is 8 kilometers per second, and the escape speed from our planet is 11 kilometers per second. There are many possible interplanetary trajectories, including those that use gravity-assisted flybys of one object to redirect the spacecraft toward its next target.
    • 2.9: Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
      Calculating the gravitational interaction of more than two objects is complicated and requires large computers. If one object (like the Sun in our solar system) dominates gravitationally, it is possible to calculate the effects of a second object in terms of small perturbations. This approach was used by John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier to predict the position of Neptune from its perturbations of the orbit of Uranus and thus discover a new planet mathematically.
    • 2.10: Observing the Sky - The Birth of Astronomy (Exercise)

    Thumbnail: In this panoramic photograph of the night sky from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we can see the central portion of the Milky Way Galaxy arcing upward in the center of the frame. On the left, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud (smaller galaxies that orbit the Milky Way Galaxy) are easily visible from the Southern Hemisphere. (credit: modification of work by ESO/Y. Beletsky)

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