Astronomy & Telescopes: A Brief History

Modern scopes have been a long time in the making. Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences, its origins dating back before prehistoric times. It is the study and observation of objects in the sky, such as planets, stars, comets, asteroids and nebulae. In the past, there was not a distinction between astronomy and astrology (fortune telling by putting forward the notion of a relationship between astronomical peculiarities, such as Halley’s Comet, and human events); however, in the present era, astronomy and physics have become a closely linked discipline, whereas the reputation of astrology has arguably declined in prestige due to its inaccuracy and lack of reliability.

Since prehistoric times, humans have been fascinated with the wonders of the night sky; the first documentation of astronomy was in Babylon (modern day Iraq) in 1645 BC. Halley’s Comet is perhaps one of the best examples of objects being observed throughout the length and breadth of history; it was first seen by various ancient kingdoms such as the Chinese around 240 BCE and the Greeks between 467-466 BCE. Its sighting often preceded great events, such as the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, and can be clearly seen in the Bayeux Tapestry. It was later found in 1758-1759 by Edward Halley, to which the comet is now named after. Another classic example of early astronomy is the famous stone structure of Stonehenge, essentially a giant ‘machine’ which calculated the position of the Sun and planets in the Solar System in relation to each other, as well as predicting the times of eclipses.

Finally, the modern-day Gregorian calendar was based upon the solar calendar which measured the duration of one complete orbit of planet Earth around the Sun. Previous calendars, such as the Chinese calendar, relied on the complete orbit of the Moon around Earth, which was approximately 30 days. When ancient kingdoms and empires rose up, they worshipped deities who represented the sky, the universe or the cosmos. Such examples include Nut of Ancient Egypt, who ruled the skies and heavens and Chang’e, the Chinese deity of the moon. The mysteries of what was out there and the desire to discover more about the velvety night sky and what it held continued into the middle ages.

With the tide of the Renaissance period in the 15th Century came ‘modern’ forms of astronomy with never before seen technology like the telescope. Nicolaus Copernicus changed the dominant Western way of viewing the Earth in relation to the Sun by proving that the Earth moved around the Sun, not the other way round; he rewrote the heliocentric theory which argues that the Earth and other planets revolve round the Sun. The art of astronomy became a fundamental aspect of European and Chinese exchanges throughout the 17th Century where Western ways of astronomy slowly seeped into China through Jesuit missionaries, where it was also undergoing major discovery and change itself. However, it was not until the 19th Century when the Copernicus philosophy became mainstream thinking in China. In comparison, the heliocentric principle was fully accepted in Japan when Jesuits visited the islands in the 17th Century. Telescopes were received with much appraise and enthusiasm at the royal courts in Beijing.

The telescope, a fundamental tool in being able to purvey the skies, was invented in the 17th Century in the Netherlands, but Galileo Galilei is often associated and credited, being the first pioneer in astronomy as well as the first person to use a telescope in 1609. He is also the namesake of the Galilean moons, four satellites located near Jupiter called Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. Isaac Newton is also credited within the annals of astronomical history as the pioneer of the Law of universal gravitation from that famous incident when he observed an apple fall, and deduced the Moon was drawn towards the Earth because of its gravitational pull. Newton is also credited with making the first reflecting telescope which used either single or a number of reflected mirrors. Throughout the 18thand 19th centuries, more and more was being discovered, like the gas giant planet Uranus in 1781 by Sir William Herschel and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in 1801.

The rise of technology in the 20th century brought this intricate art to the general public, and allowed an unprecedented number of people to purchase telescopes investigate the skyline and pursue their fantasies of never-ending space. Physical cosmology has also taken great strides and advances in its works; research into redshift (electromagnetic radiation wavelength increase) as well as microwave radiation have been shown to prove the existence of the Big Bang. And in 1990, the Hubble telescope was the first telescope to be launched into space, taking never seen before images of far-flung planets, nebulae and solar systems with picture-perfect clarity. The advent of modern technology has also allowed further discoveries of planets not only in our Solar System, but in others too. It has also led to an unprecedented number of journals and further research- around 9000 journals have been published thanks to the ground-breaking work that the telescope has been able to conduct. The Hubble Telescope has also been fundamental in measuring the distances to ‘Cepheid’ stars; prior to the launch, this was often measured with 50% inaccuracy, but now there is around ten per cent leeway. Black holes have also been proven to exist, thanks to the photographs sent by the telescope. Furthermore, the telescope was used to discover a new moon which orbits Pluto (now not considered a planet, but rather a large icy object in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune). It is hoped with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 that much older galaxies will be seen with its ability to penetrate dust, and to discover more and more distant objects like quasars and galaxy clusters. It will orbit the Earth, much in the same manner as the Hubble Space Telescope.