Astronomy is the oldest of the physical sciences. In many early civilizations the regularity of celestial motions was recognized, and attempts were made to keep records and predict future events. The first practical function of astronomy was to provide a basis for the calendar, the units of month and year being determined by astronomical observations. Later, astronomy served in navigation and timekeeping. The Chinese had a working calendar as early as the 13th cent. B.C. About 350 B.C., Shih Shen prepared the earliest known star catalog, containing 800 entries. Ancient Chinese astronomy is best known today for its observations of comets and supernovas. The Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians were also active in astronomy. The earliest astronomers were priests, and no attempt was made to separate astronomy from astrology. In fact, an early motivation for the detailed study of planetary positions was the preparation of horoscopes.Greek Innovations
The highest development of astronomy in the ancient world came with the Greeks in the period from 600 B.C. to A.D. 400. The methods employed by the Greek astronomers were quite distinct from those of earlier civilizations, such as the Babylonian. The Babylonian approach was numerological and best suited for studying the complex lunar motions that were of overwhelming interest to the Mesopotamian peoples. The Greek approach, on the contrary, was geometric and schematic, best suited for complete cosmological models. Thales, an Ionian philosopher of the 6th cent. B.C., is credited with introducing geometrical ideas into astronomy. Pythagoras, about a hundred years later, imagined the universe as a series of concentric spheres in which each of the seven "wanderers" (the sun, the moon, and the five known planets) were embedded. Euxodus developed the idea of rotating spheres by introducing extra spheres for each of the planets to account for the observed complexities of their motions. This was the beginning of the Greek aim of providing a theory that would account for all observed phenomena. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) summarized much of the Greek work before him and remained an absolute authority until late in the Middle Ages. Although his belief that the earth does not move retarded astronomical progress, he gave the correct explanation of lunar eclipses and a sound argument for the spherical shape of the earth.The Alexandrian School and the Ptolemaic System
The apex of Greek astronomy was reached in the Hellenistic period by the Alexandrian school. Aristarchus (c.310-c.230 B.C.) determined the sizes and distances of the moon and sun relative to the earth and advocated a heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmology. Although there were errors in his assumptions, his approach was truly scientific; his work was the first serious attempt to make a scale model of the universe. The first accurate measurement of the actual (as opposed to relative) size of the earth was made by Eratosthenes (284-192 B.C.). His method was based on the angular difference in the sun's position at the high noon of the summer solstice in two cities whose distance apart was known.
The greatest astronomer of antiquity was Hipparchus (190-120 B.C.). He developed trigonometry and used it to determine astronomical distances from the observed angular positions of celestial bodies. He recognized that astronomy requires accurate and systematic observations extended over long time periods. He therefore made great use of old observations, comparing them to his own. Many of his observations, particularly of the planets, were intended for future astronomers. He devised a geocentric system of cycles and epicycles (a compounding of circular motions) to account for the movements of the sun and moon.
Ptolemy (A.D. 85-165) applied the scheme of epicycles to the planets as well. The resulting Ptolemaic system was a geometrical representation of the solar system that predicted the motions of the planets with considerable accuracy. Among his other achievements was an accurate measurement of the distance to the moon by a parallax technique. His 13-volume treatise, the Almagest, summarized much of ancient astronomical knowledge and, in many translations, was the definitive authority for the next 14 centuries.
After the fall of Rome, European astronomy was largely dormant, but significant work was carried out by the Muslims and the Hindus. It was by way of Arabic translations that Greek astronomy reached medieval Europe. One of the great landmarks of the revival of learning in Europe was the publication (1543) by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). According to the Copernican system, the earth rotates on its axis and, with all the other planets, revolves around the sun. The assertion that the earth is not the center of the universe was to have profound philosophical and religious consequences. Copernicus's principal claim for his new system was that it made calculations easier. He retained the uniform circular motion of the Ptolemaic system, but by placing the sun at the center, he was able to reduce the number of epicycles. Copernicus also determined the sidereal periods (time for one revolution around the sun) of the planets and their distance from the sun relative to the sun-earth distance (see astronomical unit).Brahe and Kepler
The great astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was principally an observer; a conservative in matters of theory, he rejected the notion that the earth moves. Under the patronage of King Frederick II, Tycho established Uraniborg, a superb observatory on the Danish island of Hveen. Over a period of 20 years (1576-97), he and his assistants compiled the most accurate and complete astronomical observations to that time. At his death his records passed to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who had been his last assistant. Kepler spent nearly a decade trying to fit Tycho's observations, particularly of Mars, into an improved system of heliocentric circular motion. At last, he conceived the idea that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse with the sun at one focus. This led him to the three laws of planetary motion that bear his name (see Kepler's laws).Galileo's Telescope
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) made fundamental discoveries in both astronomy and physics; he is perhaps best described as the founder of modern science. Galileo was the first to make astronomical use of the telescope. His discoveries of the four largest moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus were persuasive evidence for the Copernican cosmology. His discoveries of craters on the moon and blemishes on the sun (sunspots) discredited the ancient belief in the perfection of the heavens. These findings were announced in The Sidereal Messenger, a small book published in 1610. Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World (1632) was an eloquent argument for the Copernican system over the Ptolemaic. However, Galileo was called before the Inquisition and forced to renounce publicly all doctrines considered contrary to Scripture.Astrophysical Discoveries
Isaac Newton (1642-1727), possibly the greatest scientific genius of all time, succeeded in uniting the sciences of astronomy and physics. His laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation provided a physical, dynamic basis for the merely descriptive laws of Kepler. Until well into the 19th cent., all progress in astronomy was essentially an extension of Newton's work. Edmond Halley's prediction that the comet of 1682 would return in 1758 was refined by A. C. Clairault, who included the perturbing effects of Jupiter and Saturn on the orbit to calculate the nearly exact date of the return of the comet. In 1781, William Herschel accidentally discovered a new planet, eventually named Uranus. Discrepancies between the observed and theoretical orbits of Uranus indicated the existence of a still more distant planet that was affecting Uranus's motion. J. C. Adams and U. J. J. Leverrier independently calculated the position where the new planet, Neptune, was actually discovered (1846). Similar calculations for a large "Planet X" led in 1930 to the discovery of Pluto, now classed as a dwarf planet.
By the early 19th cent., the science of celestial mechanics had reached a highly developed state at the hands of Leonhard Euler, J. L. Lagrange, P. S. Laplace, and others. Powerful new mathematical techniques allowed solution of most of the remaining problems in classical gravitational theory as applied to the solar system. In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres, the first of many asteroids. When Ceres was lost to view, C. F. Gauss applied the advanced gravitational techniques to compute the position where the asteroid was subsequently rediscovered. In 1838, F. W. Bessel made the first measurement of the distance to a star; using the method of parallax with the earth's orbit as a baseline, he determined the distance of the star 61 Cygni to be 60 trillion mi (about 10 light-years), a figure later shown to be 40% too large.
Astronomy was revolutionized in the second half of the 19th cent. by the introduction of techniques based on photography and spectroscopy. Interest shifted from determining the positions and distances of stars to studying their physical composition (see stellar structure and stellar evolution). The dark lines in the solar spectrum that had been observed by W. H. Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer were interpreted in an elementary fashion by G. R. Kirchhoff on the basis of classical physics, although a complete explanation came only with the quantum theory. Between 1911 and 1913, Ejnar Hertzsprung and H. N. Russell studied the relation between the colors and luminosities of typical stars (see Hertzsprung-Russell diagram). With the construction of ever more powerful telescopes (see observatory), the boundaries of the known universe constantly increased. E. P. Hubble's study of the distant galaxies led him to conclude that the universe is expanding (see Hubble's law). Using Cepheid variables as distance indicators, Harlow Shapley determined the size and shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way. During World War II Walter Baade defined two "populations" of stars, and suggested that an examination of these different types might trace the spiral shape of our own galaxy (see stellar populations). In 1951 a Yerkes Observatory group led by William W. Morgan detected evidence of two spiral arms in the Milky Way galaxy.
Various rival theories of the origin and overall structure of the universe, e.g., the big bang and steady state theories, have been formulated (see cosmology). Albert Einstein's theory of relativity plays a central role in all modern cosmological theories. In 1963, the moon passed in front of the radio source 3C-273, allowing Cyril Hazard to calculate the exact position of the source. With this information, Maarten Schmidt photographed the object's spectrum using the 200-in. (5-m) reflector on Palomar Mt., then the world's largest telescope. He interpreted the result as coming from an object, now known as a quasar, at an extreme distance and receding from us at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. In 1967 Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered a radio source a few hundred light years away featuring regular pulses at intervals of about 1 second with an accuracy of repetition of one-millionth of a second. This was the first discovered pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star emitting lighthouse-type beams of energy, the end result of the death of a star in a supernova explosion.
The discovery by Karl Jansky in 1931 that radio signals were emitted by celestial bodies initiated the science of radio astronomy. Most recently, the frontiers of astronomy have been expanded by space exploration. Perturbations and interference from the earth's atmosphere make space-based observations necessary for infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray astronomy. The Surveyor and Apollo spacecraft of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped launch the new field of astrogeology. A series of interplanetary probes, such as Mariner 2 (1962) and 5 (1967) to Venus, Mariner 4 (1965) and 6 (1969) to Mars, and Voyager 1 (1979) and 2 (1979), provided a wealth of data about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; more recently, the Magellan probe to Venus (1990) and the Galileo probe to Jupiter (1995) have continued this line of research (see satellite, artificial; space probe). The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, has made possible visual observations of a quality far exceeding those of earthbound instruments.
See A. Berry, Short History of Astronomy (1961); J. L. Dreyer, History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler (2d ed. 1953); A. Koyré, The Astronomical Revolution (1973); P. Maffei, Beyond the Moon (1978); P. Moore, ed. The International Encyclopedia of Astronomy (1987); S. Maran, ed., The Astronomy and Astrophysics Encyclopedia (1991); C. . Peterson and J. C. Brandt, Astronomy with the Hubble Space Telescope (1995).
Astronomy (from the Greek words astron (ἄστρον), "star", and nomos (νόμος), "law") is the scientific study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation). It is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, meteorology, 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, the invention of the telescope was required before astronomy was able to develop into a modern science. Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as astrometry, celestial navigation, observational astronomy, the making of calendars, and even astrology, but professional astronomy is nowadays often considered to be synonymous with astrophysics. Since the 20th century, the field of professional astronomy split into observational and theoretical branches. Observational astronomy is focused on acquiring and analyzing data, mainly using basic principles of physics. Theoretical astronomy is oriented towards the development of computer or analytical models to describe astronomical objects and phenomena. The two fields complement each other, with theoretical astronomy seeking to explain the observational results, and observations being used to confirm theoretical results.
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.
Old or even ancient astronomy is not to be confused with astrology, the belief system which claims that human affairs are correlated with the positions of celestial objects. Although the two fields share a common origin and a part of their methods (namely, the use of ephemerides), they are distinct.
In early times, astronomy only comprised the observation and predictions of the motions of objects visible to the naked eye. 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 in understanding the length of the year.
Before tools such as the telescope were invented early study of the stars had to be conducted from the only vantage points available, namely tall buildings and high ground using the bare eye.
As civilizations developed, most notably in Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, Persia, Maya, India, China, and the Islamic world, astronomical observatories were assembled, and ideas on the nature of the universe began to be explored. Most of early astronomy actually consisted of mapping the positions of the stars and planets, a science now referred to as astrometry. From these observations, early ideas about the motions of the planets were formed, and the nature of the Sun, Moon and the Earth in the universe were explored philosophically. The Earth was believed to be the center of the universe with the Sun, the Moon and the stars rotating around it. This 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 1000 BC by the Chinese. The Chaldeans discovered that lunar eclipses recurred in a repeating cycle known as a saros. In the 2nd century BC, the size and distance of the Moon were estimated by Hipparchus.
During the Middle Ages, observational astronomy was mostly stagnant in medieval Europe, at least until the 13th century. However, observational astronomy flourished in the Islamic world and other parts of the world. Some of the prominent Arab astronomers, who made significant contributions to the science were Al-Battani and Thebit. Astronomers during that time introduced many Arabic 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 innovated by 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 the size and quality of the telescope. More extensive star catalogues were produced by Lacaille. The astronomer William Herschel made a detailed 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 Lagrange 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 the Earth's own Sun, but with a wide range of temperatures, masses, and sizes.
The existence of the 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 astronomy, information is mainly received from the detection and analysis of visible light or other regions of the electromagnetic radiation. Observational astronomy may be divided according to the observed region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some parts of the spectrum can be observed from the Earth's surface, while other parts are only observable from either high altitudes or space. Specific information on these subfields is given below.
Though some radio waves are produced by astronomical objects in the form of thermal emission, most of the radio emission that is observed from Earth is seen in the form of synchrotron radiation, which is produced when electrons oscillate around magnetic fields. Additionally, a number of spectral lines produced by interstellar gas, notably the hydrogen spectral line at 21 cm, are observable at radio wavelengths.
Historically, optical astronomy, also called visible light astronomy, is the oldest form of astronomy. Optical images were originally drawn by hand. In the late nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, images were made using photographic equipment. Modern images are made using digital detectors, particularly detectors using charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Although visible light itself extends from approximately 4000 Å to 7000 Å (400 nm to 700 nm), the same equipment used at these wavelengths is also used to observe some near-ultraviolet and near-infrared radiation.
Most gamma-ray emitting sources are actually gamma-ray bursts, objects which only produce gamma radiation for a few milliseconds to thousands of seconds before fading away. Only 10% of gamma-ray sources are non-transient sources. These steady gamma-ray emitters include pulsars, neutron stars, and black hole candidates such as active galactic nuclei.
In neutrino astronomy, astronomers use special underground facilities such as SAGE, GALLEX, and Kamioka II/III for detecting neutrinos. These neutrinos originate primarily from the Sun but also from supernovae.
Cosmic rays consisting of very high energy particles can be observed hitting the Earth's atmosphere. Additionally, some future neutrino detectors will also be sensitive to the neutrinos produced when cosmic rays hit the Earth's atmosphere.
A few gravitational wave observatories have been constructed, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO) but gravitational waves are extremely difficult to detect.
Planetary astronomy has benefited from direct observation in the form of spacecraft and sample return missions. These include fly-by missions with remote sensors; landing vehicles that can perform experiments on the surface materials; impactors that allow remote sensing of buried material, and sample return missions that allow direct, laboratory examination.
Careful measurement of the positions of the planets has led to a solid understanding of gravitational perturbations, and an ability to determine past and future positions of the planets with great accuracy, a field known as celestial mechanics. More recently the tracking of near-Earth objects will allow for predictions of close encounters, and potential collisions, with the Earth.
The measurement of stellar parallax of nearby stars provides a fundamental baseline in the cosmic distance ladder that is used to measure the scale of the universe. Parallax measurements of nearby stars provide an absolute baseline for the properties of more distant stars, because their properties can be compared. Measurements of radial velocity and proper motion show the kinematics of these systems through the Milky Way galaxy. Astrometric results are also used to measure the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy.
Theorists in astronomy endeavor to create theoretical models and figure out the observational consequences of those models. This helps observers look for data that can refute a model or help in choosing between several alternate or conflicting models.
Theorists also try to generate or modify models to take into account new data. In the case of an inconsistency, the general tendency is to try to make minimal modifications to the model to fit the data. In some cases, a large amount of inconsistent data over time may lead to total abandonment of a model.
Topics studied by theoretical astronomers include: stellar dynamics and evolution; galaxy formation; large-scale structure of matter in the Universe; origin of cosmic rays; general relativity and physical cosmology, including string cosmology and astroparticle physics. Astrophysical relativity serves as a tool to gauge the properties of large scale structures for which gravitation plays a significant role in physical phenomena investigated and as the basis for black hole (astro)physics and the study of gravitational waves.
A few examples of this process:
|Physical process||Experimental tool||Theoretical model||Explains/predicts|
|Gravitation||Radio telescopes||Self-gravitating system||Emergence of a star system|
|Nuclear fusion||Spectroscopy||Stellar evolution||How the stars shine and how metals formed|
|The Big Bang||Hubble Space Telescope, COBE||Expanding universe||Age of the Universe|
|Quantum fluctuations||Cosmic inflation||Flatness problem|
|Gravitational collapse||X-ray astronomy||General relativity||Black holes at the center of Andromeda galaxy|
|CNO cycle in stars|
The Sun has steadily increased in luminosity over the course of its life, increasing by 40% since it first became a main-sequence star. The Sun has also undergone periodic changes in luminosity that can have a significant impact on the Earth. The Maunder minimum, for example, is believed to have caused the Little Ice Age phenomenon during the Middle Ages.
The visible outer surface of the Sun is called the photosphere. Above this layer is a thin region known as the chromosphere. This is surrounded by a transition region of rapidly increasing temperatures, then by the super-heated corona.
At the center of the Sun is the core region, a volume of sufficient temperature and pressure for nuclear fusion to occur. Above the core is the radiation zone, where the plasma conveys the energy flux by means of radiation. The outer layers form a convection zone where the gas material transports energy primarily through physical displacement of the gas. It is believed that this convection zone creates the magnetic activity that generates sun spots.
A solar wind of plasma particles constantly streams outward from the Sun until it reaches the heliopause. This solar wind interacts with the magnetosphere of the Earth to create the Van Allen radiation belts, as well as the aurora where the lines of the Earth's magnetic field descend into the atmosphere.
The solar system is subdivided into the inner planets, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets. The inner terrestrial planets consist of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The outer gas giant planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the small terrestrial planet Pluto. Beyond Neptune lie the Kuiper Belt, and finally the Oort Cloud, which may extend as far as a light-year.
The planets were formed by a protoplanetary disk that surrounded the early Sun. Through a process that included gravitational attraction, collision, and accretion, the disk formed clumps of matter that, with time, became protoplanets. The radiation pressure of the solar wind then expelled most of the unaccreted matter, and only those planets with sufficient mass retained their gaseous atmosphere. The planets continued to sweep up, or eject, the remaining matter during a period of intense bombardment, evidenced by the many impact craters on the Moon. During this period, some of the protoplanets may have collided, the leading hypothesis for how the Moon was formed.
Once a planet reaches sufficient mass, the materials with different densities segregate within, during planetary differentiation. This process can form a stony or metallic core, surrounded by a mantle and an outer surface. The core may include solid and liquid regions, and some planetary cores generate their own magnetic field, which can protect their atmospheres from solar wind stripping.
A planet or moon's interior heat is produced from the collisions that created the body, radioactive materials (e.g. uranium, thorium, and 26Al), or tidal heating. Some planets and moons accumulate enough heat to drive geologic processes such as volcanism and tectonics. Those that accumulate or retain an atmosphere can also undergo surface erosion from wind or water. Smaller bodies, without tidal heating, cool more quickly; and their geological activity ceases with the exception of impact cratering.
The study of stars and stellar evolution is fundamental to our understanding of the universe. The astrophysics of stars has been determined through observation and theoretical understanding; and from computer simulations of the interior.
Star formation occurs in dense regions of dust and gas, known as giant molecular clouds. When destabilized, cloud fragments can collapse under the influence of gravity, to form a protostar. A sufficiently dense, and hot, core region will trigger nuclear fusion, thus creating a main-sequence star.
The characteristics of the resulting star depend primarily upon its starting mass. The more massive the star, the greater its luminosity, and the more rapidly it expends the hydrogen fuel in its core. Over time, this hydrogen fuel is completely converted into helium, and the star begins to evolve. The fusion of helium requires a higher core temperature, so that the star both expands in size, and increases in core density. The resulting red giant enjoys a brief life span, before the helium fuel is in turn consumed. Very massive stars can also undergo a series of decreasing evolutionary phases, as they fuse increasingly heavier elements.
The final fate of the star depends on its mass, with stars of mass greater than about eight times the Sun becoming core collapse supernovae; while smaller stars form planetary nebulae, and evolve into white dwarfs. The remnant of a supernova is a dense neutron star, or, if the stellar mass was at least three times that of the Sun, a black hole. Close binary stars can follow more complex evolutionary paths, such as mass transfer onto a white dwarf companion that can potentially cause a supernova. Planetary nebulae and supernovae are necessary for the distribution of metals to the interstellar medium; without them, all new stars (and their planetary systems) would be formed from hydrogen and helium alone.
Our solar system orbits within the Milky Way, a barred spiral galaxy that is a prominent member of the Local Group of galaxies. It is a rotating mass of gas, dust, stars and other objects, held together by mutual gravitational attraction. As the Earth is located within the dusty outer arms, there are large portions of the Milky Way that are obscured from view.
In the center of the Milky Way is the core, a bar-shaped bulge with what is believed to be a supermassive black hole at the center. This is surrounded by four primary arms that spiral from the core. This is a region of active star formation that contains many younger, population II stars. The disk is surrounded by a spheroid halo of older, population I stars, as well as relatively dense concentrations of stars known as globular clusters.
Between the stars lies the interstellar medium, a region of sparse matter. In the densest regions, molecular clouds of molecular hydrogen and other elements create star-forming regions. These begin as irregular dark nebulae, which concentrate and collapse (in volumes determined by the Jeans length) to form compact protostars.
As the more massive stars appear, they transform the cloud into an H II region of glowing gas and plasma. The stellar wind and supernova explosions from these stars eventually serve to disperse the cloud, often leaving behind one or more young open clusters of stars. These clusters gradually disperse, and the stars join the population of the Milky Way.
Kinematic studies of matter in the Milky Way and other galaxies have demonstrated that there is more mass than can be accounted for by visible matter. A dark matter halo appears to dominate the mass, although the nature of this dark matter remains undetermined.
As the name suggests, an elliptical galaxy has the cross-sectional shape of an ellipse. The stars move along random orbits with no preferred direction. These galaxies contain little or no interstellar dust; few star-forming regions; and generally older stars. Elliptical galaxies are more commonly found at the core of galactic clusters, and may be formed through mergers of large galaxies.
A spiral galaxy is organized into a flat, rotating disk, usually with a prominent bulge or bar at the center, and trailing bright arms that spiral outward. The arms are dusty regions of star formation where massive young stars produce a blue tint. Spiral galaxies are typically surrounded by a halo of older stars. Both the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are spiral galaxies.
Irregular galaxies are chaotic in appearance, and are neither spiral nor elliptical. About a quarter of all galaxies are irregular, and the peculiar shapes of such galaxies may be the result of gravitational interaction.
An active galaxy is a formation that is emitting a significant amount of its energy from a source other than stars, dust and gas; and is powered by a compact region at the core, usually thought to be a super-massive black hole that is emitting radiation from in-falling material.
A radio galaxy is an active galaxy that is very luminous in the radio portion of the spectrum, and is emitting immense plumes or lobes of gas. Active galaxies that emit high-energy radiation include Seyfert galaxies, Quasars, and Blazars. Quasars are believed to be the most consistently luminous objects in the known universe.
The large-scale structure of the cosmos is represented by groups and clusters of galaxies. This structure is organized in a hierarchy of groupings, with the largest being the superclusters. The collective matter is formed into filaments and walls, leaving large voids in between.
Cosmology (from the Greek κοσμος "world, universe" and λογος "word, study") could be considered the study of the universe as a whole.
Observations of the large-scale structure of the universe, a branch known as physical cosmology, have provided a deep understanding of the formation and evolution of the cosmos. Fundamental to modern cosmology is the well-accepted theory of the big bang, wherein our universe began at a single point in time, and thereafter expanded over the course of 13.7 Gyr to its present condition. The concept of the big bang can be traced back to the discovery of the microwave background radiation in 1965.
In the course of this expansion, the universe underwent several evolutionary stages. In the very early moments, it is theorized that the universe experienced a very rapid cosmic inflation, which homogenized the starting conditions. Thereafter, nucleosynthesis produced the elemental abundance of the early universe. (See also nucleocosmochronology.)
When the first atoms formed, space became transparent to radiation, releasing the energy viewed today as the microwave background radiation. The expanding universe then underwent a Dark Age due to the lack of stellar energy sources.
A hierarchical structure of matter began to form from minute variations in the mass density. Matter accumulated in the densest regions, forming clouds of gas and the earliest stars. These massive stars triggered the reionization process and are believed to have created many of the heavy elements in the early universe.
Gravitational aggregations clustered into filaments, leaving voids in the gaps. Gradually, organizations of gas and dust merged to form the first primitive galaxies. Over time, these pulled in more matter, and were often organized into groups and clusters of galaxies, then into larger-scale superclusters.
Fundamental to the structure of the universe is the existence of dark matter and dark energy. These are now thought to be the dominant components, forming 96% of the density of the universe. For this reason, much effort is expended in trying to understand the physics of these components.
The study of chemicals found in space, including their formation, interaction and destruction, is called Astrochemistry. These substances are usually found in molecular clouds, although they may also appear in low temperature stars, brown dwarfs and planets. Cosmochemistry is the study of the chemicals found within the Solar System, including the origins of the elements and variations in the isotope ratios. Both of these fields represent an overlap of the disciplines of astronomy and chemistry.
Collectively, amateur astronomers observe a variety of celestial objects and phenomena sometimes with equipment that they build themselves. Common targets of amateur astronomers include the Moon, planets, stars, comets, meteor showers, and a variety of deep-sky objects such as star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. One branch of amateur astronomy, amateur astrophotography, involves the taking of photos of the night sky. Many amateurs like to specialize in the observation of particular objects, types of objects, or types of events which interest them.
Most amateurs work at visible wavelengths, but a small minority experiment with wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. This includes the use of infrared filters on conventional telescopes, and also the use of radio telescopes. The pioneer of amateur radio astronomy was Karl Jansky who started observing the sky at radio wavelengths in the 1930s. A number of amateur astronomers use either homemade telescopes or use radio telescopes which were originally built for astronomy research but which are now available to amateurs (e.g. the One-Mile Telescope).
Amateur astronomers continue to make scientific contributions to the field of astronomy. Indeed, it is one of the few scientific disciplines where amateurs can still make significant contributions. Amateurs can make occultation measurements that are used to refine the orbits of minor planets. They can also discover comets, and perform regular observations of variable stars. Improvements in digital technology have allowed amateurs to make impressive advances in the field of astrophotography.