AskDefine | Define astronomy

Dictionary Definition

astronomy n : the branch of physics that studies celestial bodies and the universe as a whole [syn: uranology]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /əˈstɹɑnəˌmi/ (GA)


First coined 1570, from astronomia < ἀστρονομία < ἄστρον < + νόμος, related to νέμω.


  1. The study of the physical universe beyond the Earth's atmosphere, including the process of mapping locations and properties of the matter and radiation in the universe. The study of the physical processes which control matter and energy in the universe is commonly called astrophysics. The investigation of the origin, evolution, and fate of the universe itself is called cosmology.


study of the physical universe beyond the Earth's atmosphere

Extensive Definition

Astronomy (from the Greek words astro(αστέρι) = 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 that 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.


The word astronomy literally means "law of the stars" (or "culture of the stars" depending on the translation) and is derived from the Greek αστρονομία, astronomia, from the words άστρον (astron, "star") and νόμος (nomos, "laws or cultures").

Use of terms "astronomy" and "astrophysics"

Generally, either the term "astronomy" or "astrophysics" may be used to refer to this subject. Based on strict dictionary definitions, "astronomy" refers to "the study of objects and matter outside the earth's atmosphere and of their physical and chemical properties" and "astrophysics" refers to the branch of astronomy dealing with "the behavior, physical properties, and dynamic processes of celestial objects and phenomena". In some cases, as in the introduction of the introductory textbook The Physical Universe by Frank Shu, "astronomy" may be used to describe the qualitative study of the subject, whereas "astrophysics" is used to describe the physics-oriented version of the subject. However, since most modern astronomical research deals with subjects related to physics, modern astronomy could actually be called astrophysics.
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, trees 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.

Scientific revolution

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. 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.

Radio astronomy

Radio astronomy studies radiation with wavelengths greater than approximately one millimeter. Radio astronomy is different from most other forms of observational astronomy in that the observed radio waves can be treated as waves rather than as discrete photons. Hence, it is relatively easier to measure both the amplitude and phase of radio waves, whereas this is not as easily done at shorter wavelengths. 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),
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.
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.

Astrometry and celestial mechanics

One of the oldest fields in astronomy, and in all of science, is the measurement of the positions of celestial objects. Historically, accurate knowledge of the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars has been essential in celestial navigation.
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.
During the 1990s, the astrometric technique of measuring the stellar wobble was used to detect large extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars.

Theoretical astronomy

Theoretical astronomers use a wide variety of tools which include analytical models (for example, polytropes to approximate the behaviors of a star) and computational numerical simulations. Each has some advantages. Analytical models of a process are generally better for giving insight into the heart of what is going on. Numerical models can reveal the existence of phenomena and effects that would otherwise not be seen.
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.
Some widely accepted and studied theories and models in astronomy, now included in the Lambda-CDM model are the Big Bang, Cosmic inflation, dark matter, and fundamental theories of physics.
A few examples of this process: Dark matter and dark energy are the current leading topics in astronomy, as their discovery and controversy originated during the study of the galaxies.

Subfield of astronomy for specific astronomical objects

Solar astronomy

At a distance of about eight light-minutes, the most frequently studied star is the Sun, a typical main-sequence dwarf star of stellar class G2 V, and about 4.6 Gyr in age. The Sun is not considered a variable star, but it does undergo periodic changes in activity known as the sunspot cycle. This is an 11-year fluctuation in sunspot numbers. Sunspots are regions of lower-than- average temperatures that are associated with intense magnetic activity.
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.

Planetary science

This astronomical field examines the assemblage of planets, moons, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, and other bodies orbiting the Sun, as well as extrasolar planets. The solar system has been relatively well-studied, initially through telescopes and then later by spacecraft. This has provided a good overall understanding of the formation and evolution of this planetary system, although many new discoveries are still being made.
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 and Neptune. 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.

Stellar astronomy

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.
Almost all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium were created inside the cores of stars.
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.

Galactic astronomy

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.

Extragalactic astronomy

The study of objects outside of our galaxy is a branch of astronomy concerned with the formation and evolution of Galaxies; their morphology and classification; and the examination of active galaxies, and the groups and clusters of galaxies. The latter is important for the understanding of the large-scale structure of the cosmos.
Most galaxies are organized into distinct shapes that allow for classification schemes. They are commonly divided into spiral, elliptical and Irregular galaxies.
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.

Interdisciplinary studies

Astronomy and astrophysics have developed significant interdisciplinary links with other major scientific fields. These include:

Amateur astronomy

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.

Major questions in astronomy

seealso Unsolved problems in physics Although the scientific discipline of astronomy has made tremendous strides in understanding the nature of the universe and its contents, there remain some important unanswered questions. Answers to these may require the construction of new ground- and space-based instruments, and possibly new developments in theoretical and experimental physics.
  • What is the origin of the stellar mass spectrum? That is, why do astronomers observe the same distribution of stellar masses—the initial mass function—apparently regardless of the initial conditions? A deeper understanding of the formation of stars and planets is needed.
  • Is there other life in the Universe? Especially, is there other intelligent life? If so, what is the explanation for the Fermi paradox? The existence of life elsewhere has important scientific and philosophical implications.
  • What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? These dominate the evolution and fate of the cosmos, yet we are still uncertain about their true natures.
  • Why did the universe come to be? Why, for example, are the physical constants so finely tuned that they permit the existence of life? Could they be the result of cosmological natural selection? What caused the cosmic inflation that produced our homogeneous universe?
  • What will be the ultimate fate of the universe?


Wish to suggest The Collapsing Universe The Story of Black Holes by Isaac Asimov ISBN 0-671-49886-X WFPMWFPM (talk) 04:45, 19 May 2008 (UTC)

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

astrogeology, astrognosy, astrography, astrolithology, astrophotography, astrophysics, celestial mechanics, gravitational astronomy, meteoritics, radar astronomy, radio astronomy, solar physics, spectrography, spectroscopy, stargazing, stellar photometry, uranography, uranology, uranometry
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