Subscribe to our free daily newsletters
  Space Travel News  

Subscribe to our free daily newsletters

400 Years, 7,500 Words: A History Of Planetary Science

Looking to the future, Burns predicts a deepening understanding of the solar system's origins, a more detailed familiarity with its components, and missions that are more collaborative and democratic - but perhaps not as revolutionary. And the first manned mission to Mars, he adds, might be many decades or even centuries away.
by Lauren Gold
Ithaca NY (SPX) Aug 02, 2010
In the four centuries since Galileo pointed his handheld cardboard-and-glass telescope skyward and Johannes Kepler described two laws of planetary motion, humans have come to know our solar system almost as intimately as we know our hometowns. So, consider the challenge in reviewing all of planetary science since 1610 ... in 4,000 words or fewer.

Joseph A. Burns, professor of astronomy and the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering, was offered that original task by the journal Nature - and took it. (Nature editors ultimately allowed an additional 3,500 words.) His nine-page (plus another page of footnotes) whirlwind tour appears in the July 29 issue.

Burns begins in 1609, the year of Galileo and Kepler (although Galileo actually made most of his paradigm-shifting observations in 1610), and moves through the 17th century, when various solar system bodies were identified and classified. In those times, he notes, astronomy was primarily a practical tool for maritime navigation.

The 17th and 18th centuries brought Halley and Herschel, the characterization of comets, and the discovery of Uranus. Then came the discovery of the asteroid Ceres, the first sensing of infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and the detection of stellar parallax (the apparent shift in the position of a star viewed from Earth at different points in orbit).

The majority of Burns' retelling focuses on the last 50 years - when, initially spurred largely by politics and nationalism, humans became active explorers in space.

"Few citizens today realize how poorly known the solar system's members, including the Earth, were before the space era," he writes. "Simply put, astonishingly few facts were available." As recently as 1966, for example, scientists actively debated whether there was vegetation on Mars.

When Burns entered the field in the late 1960s, the space age was in full swing. "I became addicted to space exploration by the gradual and seductive disrobing of all the inner planets," he writes. From the Mariner missions to Mercury, Venus and Mars to the Viking landers on Mars and the Voyager Grand Tour, "it truly was an incredible time," he said.

Politics have changed and the pace has slowed since then, he writes, but new discoveries keep coming.

"The way that you can have a whole array of bodies formed around our sun out of the same sorts of materials - physics and chemisty are the same everywhere, and you get planets and satellites that look so remarkably different and are so astonishingly beautiful - I'm continually amazed," he said.

"Exploring the solar system is much like it must have been for the adventurers who came to the New World centuries ago, or when you go traveling - you turn around a corner and you never know what you're going to see or what you're going to learn. And that's the way it's been."

Looking to the future, Burns predicts a deepening understanding of the solar system's origins, a more detailed familiarity with its components, and missions that are more collaborative and democratic - but perhaps not as revolutionary. And the first manned mission to Mars, he adds, might be many decades or even centuries away.

"Some policymakers consider that the early 21st century is the time to develop outposts on Mars, but such action seems premature for various reasons - financial, technical and sociological," he writes.

But if Martian outposts are not feasible quite yet, he said, the coming years are likely to bring a deeper understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, our place in it, and the worlds beyond it.

"I think really the future is in finding other Earthlike planets around other stars and perhaps life there," he said. "And just the way that our understanding of our immediate surroundings has changed, that will change our perspective on life and our species."

Share This Article With Planet Earth DiggDigg RedditReddit
YahooMyWebYahooMyWeb GoogleGoogle FacebookFacebook

Related Links
Astronomy News from

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Hypatia - 4th Century Woman Astronomer
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 29, 2010
The new movie Agora chronicles the life, challenges and death of Hypatia, a 4th Century woman astronomer whose contribution influenced and shaped modern science and our understanding of the world and the universe. Mabel Armstrong, author of the award-winning book Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars, tells Hypatia's story with the joy that a great science teacher (which she was) can bring t ... read more

New Rocket Launch Period In And Around Tanegashima

Kourou Spaceport Welcomes New Liquid Oxygen And Liquid Nitrogen Production Facility

Sea Launch Signs Agreement With EchoStar

ISRO To Launch GSLV With Cryo Engine Within An Year

NASA And ESA's First Joint Mission To Mars Selects Instruments

Caltech And CSA Awarded NASA Project To Develop Spectrometer Headed To Mars

Opportunity Back To Normal Operations

Spirit May Never Phone Home Again

NASA's ATHLETE Warms Up For High Desert Run

Japan experts call for robot expedition to moon

Chandrayaan-2 Payloads To Be Decided Next Month

GRAIL Spacecraft Takes Shape

Pounding Particles To Create Neptune's Water In The Lab

Course Correction Keeps New Horizons On Path To Pluto

Scientists See Billions Of Miles Away

System Tests, Science Observations And A Course Correction

Planets In Unusually Intimate Dance Around Dying Star

Detector Technology Could Help NASA Find Earth-Like Exoplanets

NASA Finds Super-Hot Planet With Unique Comet-Like Tail

Recipes For Renegade Planets

Honeywell Provides Guidance System For Atlas V Rocket

Using Rocket Science To Make Wastewater Treatment Sustainable

U.S. students win rocket challenge in U.K.

Private spacecraft nearing first test drop

China Contributes To Space-Based Information Access A Lot

China Sends Research Satellite Into Space

China eyes Argentina for space antenna

Seven More For Shenzhou

WISE Discovers Over 90 Near-Earth Objects

'Sample return' space missions examined

Fascinating Images From A New World

Rosetta Triumphs At Asteroid Lutetia

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2010 - SpaceDaily. AFP and UPI Wire Stories are copyright Agence France-Presse and United Press International. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by SpaceDaily on any Web page published or hosted by SpaceDaily. Privacy Statement