A History of Astronomy through 19 Objects

NASA's recently deployed James Webb Space Telescope continues to blow our minds with every image NASA releases. To appreciate how lucky we are to see so deep into space, we thought we'd revisit some of the fascinating tools astronomers have used since prehistory to study the stars. 

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Stonehenge

Photo credit: Public Domain

It’s the oldest, most sophisticated stone circle in the world, prehistory’s enduring sun and sky observatory in Wiltshire, England. Tourists and new age adherents flock to the site on summer and winter solstices to see the sun align perfectly through its stones. Take a virtual tour of Stonehenge here.

The obelisk of Senusret I

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Neithsabes

This 4,000-year-old obelisk is still standing, its moving shadow offering observers the simplest means to tell time. Learn more about obelisks here and how one was used to measure the Earth’s circumference here.

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Merkhet

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Science Museum Group

Some of the earliest astronomical tools used celestial objects for navigation, including the merkhet, a bar with a plumb line attached. It could also indicate the time at night. Learn more about merkhets here.

Star Chart

Photo credit: Wikimedia, Frank Vincentz

Humans have depicted constellations for tens of thousands of years. The above example, a nearly 4,000-year-old artifact known as the Nebra disc, was discovered in Germany and depicts the sun, moon, and stars. See a timeline of star chart evolution here.

Astrolabe

Photo credit: Veli Gurgah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An astrolabe included at least two layered metal discs with a series of wires and holes to identify stars, determine latitude, or measure the altitude of sky objects. They were common during the Middle Ages through to the Age of Discovery. Watch how an astrolabe works here.

Astrarium

Photo credit: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

These medieval time-telling tools represented the planets and stars, an ancestor to today’s planetarium. The above image features a reconstruction of an astrarium designed by 14th-century Italian physician Giovanni Dondi, including seven panels and over 100 moving parts. See a visual deep dive into Dondi’s creation here.

Sextant

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The sextant, and its predecessor the quadrant, were essential navigation tools during the Middle Ages. The tool helped navigators measure the angular distance between two visible objects. Read more on the uses and history of the sextant here.

Celatone

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo invented the celatone to observe Jupiter’s four moons (which he discovered) and determine longitude on Earth. Wearing it can make the wearer look like a unicorn. Read the story of Galileo’s invention here.

Planisphere

Photo credit: Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images

Much like a map, a planisphere projects the known sky onto a surface, including parchment, metal, or any serviceable material. Some operate similarly to an astrolabe with a movable disc. Read background on planispheres here.

Refractor Telescope

Photo credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The earliest telescopes refracted light using a pair of oppositely curved glass lenses. The telescope revealed portions of the night sky never seen before, opening a new era in astronomy. Watch a quick video on Galileo’s contribution to refracting telescopes.

Reflector Telescope

Photo credit: Culture Club/Bridgeman via Getty Images

Refracting telescopes had limited viewing fields, so astronomers looking for a wider view developed reflector telescopes using mirrors. They started small, but now there are many telescopes with mirrors over 30 feet in diameter. Check out the world’s five largest reflecting telescopes.

Spectroheliograph

Photo credit: Huntington Digital Library

As photography developed as a technology, astronomers developed their own techniques to capture light from deep in space the human eye can’t detect. The spectroheliograph captured monochromatic images to reveal layers of calcium vapor in the sun. See images from the earliest astrophotography here.

Blink Comparator

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Astronomers observing images of deep space taken a certain time apart could quickly compare the images using the blink comparator, revealing the movement of any objects. Pluto, the once-planet and now dwarf planet, was discovered this way—read that story here.

Spectroscope

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Astronomers discovered they could use a prism to identify the chemical makeup of stars, providing science with information believed out of our reach. Watch a deep dive into how stellar spectroscopy works.

Radio Telescope

Photo credit: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Massive radio telescopes around the world search the universe for information outside the realm of visible light with their central antennae, picking up all kinds of information from radio waves. See the top five things astronomers have discovered using radio telescopes here.

Space Telescope

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Reflective telescopes on land still have to deal with the obscuring effect of Earth’s atmosphere on images. To get a clearer picture, space organizations operate reflective telescopes in space, including the Hubble Telescope (above) and the mind-bending James Webb. Watch how the JWST was deployed here.

Coronograph

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Sometimes, stuff astronomers are looking for may be concealed by another object. A coronagraph blocks out direct light to capture stray light from behind or beyond the object. It also allows observers to study the sun. See how astronomers are using coronagraphs to search for new planets here.

Photometer

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Astrophysicists can determine a star’s brightness or its distance from Earth using a photometer, which measures the intensity of an object’s light. See why photometry is so important for astronomy here.

Multi-Messenger Observatories

Photo credit: HAWC/National Science Foundation

Astrophysicists are looking to pick up multiple signals—neutrinos, photons, gravity waves, and cosmic rays—at the same time with many observation stations so they can detect big cosmic events like neutron star mergers. The above image shows a cosmic ray observatory in Mexico. Read up on the new kind of project here.

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