Since the dawn of time, people have looked to the stars with their questions. Astronomy is one of the oldest branches of science, but it is still important today. Scientists are constantly expanding our knowledge of space as new mysteries are both solved and discovered.
What is Astronomy?
The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Wayne State University notes that astronomy is the study of the universe, and primarily of the bodies in the universe which we can observe. Astronomy is more than just looking at the stars, moon, sun, and other planets. According to the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, it is also focused on the physics, evolution, chemistry, and science of the universe and its objects.
History of Astronomy
Cornell University states that astronomy is the oldest natural science, and that people have practicing astronomy as long as humans have looked at the sky. Ancient civilizations depended on astronomy to keep track of time, orient their cities, and plant crops.
In the early modern era, scientists like Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, and later Kepler and Newton, began to use telescopes and other tools to argue the physics of the universe, according to the University of California-San Diego Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, which helped to pave the way for modern astronomy.
Future of Astronomy
Astronomy has a long past, but what does its future look like? The Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990, was a huge leap forward in our understanding of space. According to HubbleSite, scientists are now planning for even more accurate and long-lasting telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope, which will launch in 2018.
Also key to the future of astronomy is the growing recognition of cultural landmarks here on Earth. For example, in Hawaii, the Thirty Meter Telescope, a high powered telescope that will allow scientists to see more of the universe than ever before, is slated to be built on Mauna Kea. However, according to Physics Today, many native Hawaiians view the mountain as sacred. The delicate balance between science and cultural sensitivity is a difficult one that astronomy’s future may be impacted by.
Famous People in Space and Astronomy
Many people have contributed to our understandings of space and astronomy. Nicolaus Copernicus developed a heliocentric model of the universe that overturned centuries of Greek astronomy, and this paved the way for Galileo Galilei to expand on this model and make observations that led to our modern understanding of our galaxy, according to Kent State University.
In the modern era, Yuri Gagarin was the first person to enter space, and in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon, all part of the “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s, according to Phys.org. These people, like early astronomers, were supported by vast groups of scientists and support staff who, although less famous, were no less instrumental in our space exploration.
Famous Satellites and Telescopes
One of the most famous satellites, Sputnik 1, the small, beach ball sized metal sphere that seemed to do little other than orbit and beep, was responsible for starting the space race. Launched in 1957 by the Soviet Union, Sputnik ushered in a new age of interest in space and technology and made the impossible dream of going to space seem possible, according to PBS.
Although the Hubble Telescope is one of the most famous, another telescope, The Pluto Discovery Telescope, is equally interesting. According to the Lowell Observatory, this telescope was built in 1928-29 with the express purpose of finding “Planet X,” which we now know as Pluto. Astronomer Percival Lowell believed the planet existed based on the physics and mathematics of the known galaxy, and his theory proved to be correct. You can still visit this telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Astronomy for Kids
Astronomy is one of the most easily accessible sciences for kids. There is no required equipment to look at the sky, and any equipment needed for more detailed observation is easy to obtain and safe for all ages. In addition, many schools, libraries, museums, and astronomical societies, like the Houston Astronomical Society, have events and resources for kids interested in astronomy.
Here are some links to learn more about astronomy for kids:
- American Library Association: Astronomy & space
- Kids Cosmos: Solar system
- American Museum of Natural History: Ology: a science website for kids
Games and Activities
The Space Foundation Discovery Center in Colorado Springs also has resources and games for learning about space, both to do at home and for visitors to their facility.
Astronomy for Teens and Adults
Teaching teens and adults about astronomy, or sparking an interest that leads to a lifetime of learning, is also important. The Rochester Museum and Science Center has online resources and a series of events for teens and adults to learn about astronomy, as does the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.
Information about astronomy is easy to find, but, as with most sciences, it is not always accurate. Here are some good resources for accurate and timely information on astronomy:
- Yale University: Department of astronomy
- American Astronomical Society: Home
- The University of Texas at Austin: Astronomy
Astronomy can be practiced without any equipment, but to see more than is visible with the naked eye, some equipment is needed. Luckily, much can be seen with equipment that is easily accessible to many people.
Here are two excellent resources for determining what type of astronomy equipment you need:
Astronomy Clubs and Forums
Joining an astronomy club is a great way for amateur astronomers to learn more about astronomy and participate in activities with other like-minded people. Most major cities have an astronomical society. The Memphis Astronomical Society, for example, has events throughout the year. The Astronomical League also has a list of astronomy clubs, events, and forums throughout the United States and it is searchable by location.
Resources for Teachers and Educators
There are many resources for teachers, parents, and educators of astronomy. The National Science Foundation has a list of resources for all grade levels, and the Institute of Physics has resources and information on teaching astronomy and physics to students. NASA also has a section of their website devoted to teaching resources.
Here are lesson plan resources for kindergarten through 5th grade, 6th through 8th grade, and 9th through 12th grade:
Kindergarten through 5th Grade
- Discovery Education: Lesson plan library
- National Education Association: Watching the summer night sky
6th through 8th Grade
- Star Date: Lesson plans
- Rutgers University Department of Physics: Physics and astronomy lesson plans
9th through 12th Grade
- MIT Haystack Observatory: Lesson plans
- Space Science Institute: Kinesthetic astronomy
- University of Florida: History of science lesson plans