The history of astronomical science is a fascinating one.

To think that the Mayans and the Ancient Greeks used observational techniques and calculations to monitor and even predict orbits and eclipses – over two thousand years ago – is quite something. And to consider that astrophysicists could postulate the existence of particular planets and stars before they could even see them is pretty cool too.

All this knowledge that these days we take for granted – that gravity is a thing, that there are eight planets in our solar system, that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is only one of billions – had to be discovered. And discovering things like this in physics is really not an easy task.

Here we are going to look at the slow development in our knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics. From the days of the first rudimentary telescopes – with which we’d stare into the cosmos – to now, when we have shuttles outside of our solar system.

It’s a long history, and it is based less on genius discoveries – although there are some of those – and more on the slow accretion and sharing of knowledge. That’s more realistically how an astrophysicist works – and how science works in general.

Let’s take a look at some of the great steps forward in our cosmological and astrophysical knowledge.

Find out everything you need to know about astronomy!

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Aristarchus of Samos First Proposes a Heliocentric (Sun-Centred) Universe – 270BC

Astronomers were hindered for fifteen hundred years due to the influence of Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician, geographer, and astronomy. Whilst undoubtedly an incredibly smart guy, his commitment to the geocentric model of the universe – and his general intellectual authority – had scientists going in the wrong direction for centuries.

Three hundred years before him, Aristarchus, another Greek thinker, had proposed instead the heliocentric model – which suggested that the Earth goes around the Sun. If he hadn’t been ignored, this would have been a major scientific breakthrough.

Check out the differences between astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology!

the sun
The sun is the centre of our solar system - not the Earth

Tycho Brahe Observes a Supernova – 1572

It was a common idea among scientists up until this point that ‘the heavens’ could not change. However, Tycho Brahe, the Dutch astronomer shook up this perspective when he witnessed a supernova.

At the time, he called it a ‘stella nova’, a new star – which influences what we call them now: supernovae. From then on, we realised that things in the universe could indeed change.

The First Refracting Telescope – 1608

At the beginning of what became a revolution in astronomy, a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lippershey attempted to patent a telescope based on refraction.

He didn’t succeed – but his designs spread across Europe and became the basis for the observational technologies of the future.

Galileo’s Discoveries Change the Way we Think about the World – 1610

We missed out Copernicus, who, in 1543, had suggested that, actually, as Aristarchus had suggested, the Earth goes around the Sun. Yet, his theories did not gain traction until Galileo Galilei finally proved them in 1610.

With his own telescope, he found spots on the sun and four of the moons of Jupiter. Not everyone liked his discoveries however, and the Church bothered him all his life – claiming that he was a heretic.

Find out about our solar system!

Isaac Newton Publishes his Book on Gravity – 1687

One of the great scientific breakthroughs in history came from Isaac Newton – yes, the guy with the apple.

His discoveries were a little more sophisticated than this, however. His work explained the forces acting between all of the celestial objects, whilst proposing general laws of motion too.

His ideas were the basis of physics until Einstein in the early twentieth century.

apple gravity
Without the apple, we may never have discovered gravity

William Herschel Discovers Uranus – and Extends our Knowledge of the Solar System – 1781

Another break with the physics and astronomy of the ancient world came in 1781, when William Herschel discovered Uranus.

The significance of this was greater than just the discovery of another planetary object. This was rather the first time at which scientists had to expand their idea of what the Solar System was – as it was previously thought to end at Saturn.

Joseph van Fraunhofer Builds the First Spectrometer – 1814

Into the nineteenth century, inventions abounded. One of the most important of these was Fraunhofer’s spectrometer, the first instrument used to observe and analyse the materials of which stars are made.

Stellar spectroscopy analyses the light emitted by stars and, with great sophistication, one can use this evidence to infer the make-up of a distant object’s surface.

The Largest Telescope Ever Discovers the Whirlpool Galaxy – 1845

Knowledge of galactic distances and structures moved forward with William Parsons’s construction of a mega telescope – the biggest such structure created to that day.

Through it he could see the Whirlpool Galaxy, over twenty-three million light years away – and Parsons was the first person to identify its spiral structure. The thing was, he just didn’t know it was a galaxy.

Do you know how a star is formed?

Neptune Discovered – 1846

The amazing thing about the discovery of Neptune is that it was actually discovered without ever having been seen. Rather, two astronomers, John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier, actually inferred its presence – as its size means that it has an influence on the orbit of Uranus.

In 1846, Johann Galle pointed his telescope in the direction that Le Verrier suggested – and, lo and behold, Neptune was there.

saturn planet
Saturn - image from NASA

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Theorises (Accurately) the Possibility of Space Flight – 1895

A strange Russian recluse, Tsiolkovsky made it possible for the space flights to be conducted into the twenty-first century. He proposed that only with a rocket could one possibly fly into space – and his calculations and equations regarding the necessary speed of space travel proved accurate.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Blows Astrophysical Minds – 1905

Albert Einstein, as we know, was an important guy. At this point in the history of science, people were becoming a little frustrated by the holes that were becoming apparent in Newton’s theories.

Einstein moved the world a step further with his famous e=mc2, which enabled us to understand gravity better – alongside radiation and atomic mass.

Edwin Hubble Proves that Galaxies Exist beyond Our Own – 1923

Edwin Hubble was one of the great astronomers of the twentieth century – if not of all time.

His most important contribution was to identify that the things we believed to be ‘nebulae’ – clouds of dust, essentially – were actually distant galaxies, like the Whirlpool Galaxy enjoyed by Parsons.

At this point, astronomy moved beyond the Milky Way.

Cecilia Payne Uses Spectroscopy to Show that Stars are Mainly Hydrogen – 1925

However, it wasn’t until this point – 1925 – that we actually realised what stars were made of. The answer, discovered by Cecilia Payne, was hydrogen.

This discovery was of huge importance – as it helped to understand star formation and the chemical make-up of everything.

The Discovery of the Big Bang – 1927

One of the most famous aspects of astronomy is the Big Bang – the original moment in the universe.

Georges Lemaitre suggested the idea first, having considered that the universe is actually continually expanding. Hubble was to confirm this in 1929.

Hans Bethe Explains what Happens in the Centre of the Sun – 1938

Another contribution to stellar formation came from Hans Bethe, the German physicist, who, over the course of a science conference, came up with the equation to explain what happens at a nuclear level inside stars.

The First Person on the Moon – 1969

One of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon in 1969, heralding an era of space investigation.

It’s quite amazing really.

The First Landing on Mars – 1971

In the space race that became the great symbol of US and Soviet Cold War competition, Russia was the first country to land a shuttle on the surface of Mars. It broke immediately.

However, in 1973, plenty more Russian crafts landed again – and this time communicated back with Earth.

Is there life on other planets?

Proof of a Black Hole – 1972

What was just speculation was finally proved in 1972 when Charles Thomas Bolton confirmed irrefutably the existence of a black hole. When he saw a star wobbling in its orbit, he knew that the mass that this would require would have been too big to be another star.

NASA’s Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System and Enters Interstellar Space – 2013

Another landmark in the history of space exploration, in 2013, Voyager 1 finally left the Solar System. It was launched, by the way, in 1977, meaning it took thirty-six years to leave.

First Image of a Black Hole – 2019

In news that shocked the world recently, the first picture of a black hole was taken in 2019. Given that the gravity of a black hole is strong enough to pull in light, this was no mean feat – at all.


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