When people hear the word “astronomy”, they usually think of stargazing. That’s actually how it got started — by people looking at the sky and charting what they saw. “Astronomy” comes from two old Greek terms astron for “star” and nomia for “law”, or “laws of the stars”. That idea actually underlies the history of astronomy: a long road of figuring out what objects in the sky are and what laws of nature govern them. To reach an understanding of cosmic objects, people had to do a lot of observing. That showed them the motions of objects in the sky, and led to the first scientific comprehension of what they might be.
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Throughout human history, people have “done” astronomy and eventually found that their observations of the sky gave them clues to the passage of time. It should be no surprise that people began to to use the sky more than 15,000 years ago. It provided handy keys for navigation and calendar-making thousands of years ago. With the invention of such tools as the telescope, observers began to learn more about the physical characteristics of the stars and planets, which led them to wonder about their origins. The study of the sky moved from a cultural and civic practice to the realm of science and mathematics.
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So, what are the main targets that astronomers study? Let’s start with stars the heart of astronomy studies. Our Sun is a star, one of perhaps a trillion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.The galaxy itself is one of countless galexies in the universe.
Our own solar system is an active area of study. Early observers noticed that most stars did not appear to move. But, there were objects that seemed to wander against the backdrop of stars. Some moved slowly, others relatively quickly throughout the year. They called these “planetes”, the Greek word for “wanderers”. Today, we simply call them “planets.” There are also asteroids and comets “out there”, which scientists study as well.
Stars and planets aren’t the only thing that populate the galaxy. Giant clouds of gas and dust, called “nebulae” (the Greek plural term for “clouds”) are also out there. These are places where stars are born, or sometimes are simply the remains of stars that have died. Some of the weirdest “dead stars” are actually neutron stars and black holes. Then, there are quasars, and weird ”beasts” called magneters, as well as colliding galaxies, and much more. Beyond our own galaxy (the Milky Way), lie an amazing collection of galaxies ranging from spirals like our own to lenticulars shaped once, spherical, and even irregular galaxies.
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