Astromomy is a changing science

Learning more about space

It was a clear, sunny day on Mars, with just a few streaks of cirrus cloud. A range of low hills defined the horizon.

That was one of the images sent back to us by one of the robots we have exploring the Red Planet. Then we have pictures transmitted back from Titan, Saturn's largest moon, showing the rocky bed of a dried up stream. We have rock samples from the Moon, from an asteroid, and close-up images of many bodies in the Solar System. We even have images from the surface of Venus, sent back before the spacecraft melted.

For most of its history, astronomy consisted mainly of observing dots in the sky. Our ancestors assessed their brightnesses and recorded their positions. They noticed that some dots were in groupings that did not change. Those were stars, and those groupings became the constellations we know today.

There were a few other dots that moved to and fro along a defined path in the sky. Those were the planets. One thing our ancestor astronomers noticed was the heavens were orderly, stable and highly predictable. This contrasted strongly with the unpredictability of life down here on the ground.

The relative stability of the heavens is why people panicked when something new turned up in the sky, such as a comet. Later, when telescopes were invented, we could see that planets are different from stars, and we could even see surface features on some of them. The Moon changed from a smooth heavenly body to a rock ball, pocked with craters and old lava flows.

In those days, sciences like geology, meteorology and biology, were aimed at better understanding our own planet. Applying them to other worlds was left largely to science fiction writers. Now things have completely changed. Thanks to improved telescopes, spacecraft observing bodies in the Solar System from up close, or even landing on them, we can now study other worlds almost as freely as we can study our own. We can now buy textbooks on the geology of Mars, or the Moon. We can even study the weather on other worlds. They have become places we can relate with ours.

Not long ago, we thought there were planets orbiting other stars, but we did not know. Since then, we have discovered thousands of them. Almost every star has planets, some of which could be like our own. We even know whether some of these planets have atmospheres, and scientists are actively searching those atmospheres for chemical markers of life. We now know we live on one world among many, orbiting one star among billions, in one galaxy among billions. It is hard to imagine our planet could be the only inhabited one.

Thanks to our rapidly expanding knowledge of other worlds we can apply what we used to think of as the “earth sciences,” such as geology, to other worlds. This is making it possible to compare the forces moulding other planets with those shaping ours.

These comparisons are raising important questions, such as if Venus, Earth and Mars were similar when they formed, why are they so different now? We thought we knew why our Solar System is structured as it is, and assumed other systems would be similar. However, now we know the Solar System is by no means typical. Few extrasolar planetary systems are anything like ours.

On Feb. 14, 1990, NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft, then around six billion kilometres away and leaving the Solar System, looked back and took a picture of the Earth. It showed our planet as a tiny, faint blue dot against the blackness of space; it was just another dot in the sky.

Astronomy has changed from a science aimed at improving our understanding of what is going on "out there", to a science that is also improving our understanding of what is going on “down here.”


• Saturn lies in the south after sunset, with Jupiter in the east.

• Venus rises in the early hours.

• The Moon will be full on Nov. 27

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ken Tapping is an astronomer born in the U.K. He has been with the National Research Council since 1975 and moved to the Okanagan in 1990.  

He plays guitar with a couple of local jazz bands and has written weekly astronomy articles since 1992. 

Tapping has a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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