2024: Astronomical research and thinking over the years

Years AgoDevelopments and growth in astronomy
10In the 2010s, the focus was on multi-wavelength and multi-messenger astronomy, the study of exoplanets, and the preparation for extremely large telescopes and international collaborations like the SKA project.
25The late 20th century saw the construction of large, ground-based telescopes and the launch of major space telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, revolutionizing observational astronomy.
50The 1970s witnessed the use of space-based observatories surveying the Universe in new wavelength regions, and the exploration of the solar system by spacecraft. Astronomy was becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, incorporating physics and engineering.
75Post-World War II, the field of radio astronomy began to emerge, providing a new window into the universe. Optical astronomy continued to advance with large telescopes like the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory.
100The 1920s marked a significant shift in astronomical thought, with Edwin Hubble’s work leading to the realization that the universe extends beyond the Milky Way. The field of extragalactic astronomy was burgeoning.
150The 1870s saw advancements in spectroscopy and photography, enhancing understanding of stellar composition and structure. Observatories worldwide were expanding their capabilities.
200Early 19th century astronomy was focused on cataloguing stars and improving telescopic technology. The Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, played a significant role in observing the southern sky.
300Newtonian physics provides a foundation for celestial mechanics.
400Invention of the telescope revolutionizes astronomical observation.
500Copernican heliocentrism challenges the geocentric model.
600Renaissance period revival of interest in systematic astronomical observations.
800Translation of Arabic and Greek astronomical texts in medieval Europe.
1,000Islamic Golden Age in astronomy, such as improved astrolabes, detailed astronomical charts, development of celestial mechanics and eclipse predictions, Al-Sufi’s ‘Book of Fixed Stars’.
2,000Astronomers were focused on observing and cataloguing celestial bodies and phenomena, such as eclipses, comets, and planetary motions. Astrology and astronomy is closely linked, with celestial events often interpreted for omens or divinatory purposes. Chinese astronomy was advanced, with systematic observations and recordings of celestial events, including solar eclipses and supernovae. The Chinese lunar calendar was also well-established. In the west, influenced by Greek astronomy, Romans adopted and furthered astronomical knowledge. Ptolemy, in his Almagest, developed the geocentric model, which dominated astronomical thought for centuries. In Egypt, the famous Library of Alexandria was a centre for astronomical study. In Sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous astronomical knowledge was likely passed down orally. In South America, the Nazca and Moche had their own astronomical practices. The Nazca Lines in Peru, for instance, are thought to have astronomical significance.
6,000During the Neolithic Period, early forms of civilization were emerging, particularly in regions like Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Astronomy was primarily practical, used to track time for agricultural purposes. Observing the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and prominent stars helped in determining seasons for planting and harvesting. Celestial events were often interpreted for their supposed influence on human affairs, laying the groundwork for astrology. Many early societies used lunar calendars, basing their months on the phases of the Moon. Some of the earliest known astronomical observatories, like Stonehenge in England, date back to this period. Early forms of Egyptian astronomy were emerging. Pyramids and temples were aligned to celestial events, and the heliacal rising of Sirius (associated with the goddess Isis) was particularly significant. Sites like Nabta Playa, which predates Stonehenge, may have been used to track the summer solstice and other celestial events.

Protecting South Africa’s astronomical heritage

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