Astronomy, which etymologically means "law of the stars", (from Greek: αστρονομία = άστρον + νόμος) is a science involving the observation and explanation of events occurring outside Earth and its atmosphere. It studies the origins, evolution, physical and chemical properties of objects that can be observed in the sky (and are outside the earth), as well as the processes involving them.
, photographed by the crew of Apollo 11 as they circled the Moon in 1969. Located near the center of the far side of Earth's Moon, its diameter is about 93 kilometers (58 miles).]]
Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs still play an active role, especially in the discovery and monitoring of transient phenomena. Astronomy is not to be confused with astrology, a pseudoscience that attempts to predict a person's destiny by tracking the paths of astronomical objects. Although the two fields share a common origin, they are quite different; astronomers embrace the scientific method, while astrologers do not.
In its earliest days, going back to ancient Greece and other ancient civilizations, astronomy consisted largely of astrometry, measuring positions of stars and planets in the sky. Later, the work of Kepler and Newton paved the way for celestial mechanics, mathematically predicting the motions of celestial bodies interacting under gravity, and solar system objects in particular. Much of the effort in these two areas, once done largely by hand, is highly automated nowadays, to the extent that they are rarely considered as independent disciplines anymore. Motions and positions of objects are now easily known, and modern astronomy concerns itself much more with trying to observe and understand the actual physical nature of celestial objects—what makes them "tick".
Ever since the twentieth century the field of professional astronomy has tended to split into observational astronomy and theoretical astrophysics. Although most astronomers incorporate elements of both into their research, because of the different skills involved, most professional astronomers tend to specialize in one or the other. Observational astronomy is concerned mostly with getting data, which involves building and maintaining instruments and processing the resulting data; this branch is at times referred to as "astrometry" or simply as "astronomy." Theoretical astrophysics is concerned mainly with figuring out the observational implications of different models, and involves working with computer or analytic models.
The fields of study are also categorized in another two ways: by "subject", usually according to the region of space (e.g. Galactic astronomy) or "problems addressed" (such as star formation or cosmology); or by the way used for obtaining information.
on Mars. Photographed by Mars Global Surveyor, the long dark streak is formed by a moving swirling column of Martian atmosphere (with similarities to a terrestrial tornado). The dust devil itself (the black spot) is climbing the crater wall. The streaks on the right are sand dunes on the crater floor.]]
Astrobiology: the study of the advent and evolution of biological systems in the universe.
Astrometry: the study of the position of objects in the sky and their changes of position. Defines the system of coordinates used and the kinematics of objects in our galaxy.
Cosmology: the study of the universe as a whole and its evolution.
Galactic astronomy: the study of the structure and components of our galaxy and of other galaxies.
Optical astronomy describes the techniques used to detect and analyze light in and slightly around the wavelengths that can be detected with the eyes (about 400 - 800 nm). The most common tool is the telescope, with electronic imagers and spectrographs.
Infrared astronomy deals with the detection of infrared radiation (wavelengths longer than red light). The most common tool is the telescope but with the instrument optimized for infrared. Space telescopes are also used to eliminate noise (electromagnetic interference) from the atmosphere.
Radio astronomy uses completely different instruments to detect radiation of wavelengths of mm to cm. The receivers are similar to those used in radio broadcast transmission (which uses those wavelengths of radiation). See also Radio telescopes.
. This image shows several blue, loop-shaped objects that are multiple images of the same galaxy. They have been duplicated by the gravitational lens effect of the cluster of yellow galaxies near the photograph's center. The lens is produced by the cluster's gravitational field that bends light to magnify and distort the image of a more distant object.]]
Optical and radio astronomy can be performed with ground-based observatories, because the atmosphere is transparent at those wavelengths. Infrared light is heavily absorbed by
water vapor, so infrared observatories have to be located in high, dry places or in space.
Astronomy was mostly stagnant in medievalEurope, but flourished meanwhile in the Arab world. The late 9th century Islamic astronomer al-Farghani (Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani) wrote extensively on the motion of celestial bodies. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In the late 10th century, a huge observatory was built near Tehran, Iran, by the astronomer al-Khujandi who observed a series of meridian transits of the Sun, which allowed him to calculate the obliquity of the ecliptic. In Persia, Omar Khayyam (Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami) compiled many tables and performed a reformation of the calendar that was more accurate than the Julian and came close to the Gregorian.
Stars were found to be faraway objects. With the advent of spectroscopy it was proved that they were similar to our own sun, but with a wide range of temperatures, masses and sizes. The existence of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as a separate group of stars was only proven 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. 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.