Portal:Astronomy

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The Astronomy Portal

Astronomy portal

A man sitting on a chair mounted to a moving platform, staring through a large telescope.

Astronomy (from Greek: ἀστρονομία) is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.

Astronomy is one of the oldest of the natural sciences. The early civilizations in recorded history, such as the Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, Egyptians, Nubians, Iranians, Chinese, Maya, and many ancient indigenous peoples of the Americas, performed methodical observations of the night sky. Historically, astronomy has included disciplines as diverse as astrometry, celestial navigation, observational astronomy, and the making of calendars, but professional astronomy is now often considered to be synonymous with astrophysics.

Professional astronomy is split into observational and theoretical branches. Observational astronomy is focused on acquiring data from observations of astronomical objects, which is then analyzed using basic principles of physics. Theoretical astronomy is oriented toward 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 observational results and observations being used to confirm theoretical results.

Astronomy is one of the few sciences in which amateurs still play an active role, especially in the discovery and observation of transient events. Amateur astronomers have made and contributed to many important astronomical discoveries, such as finding new comets.

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Photograph of the crescent planet Neptune (top) and its moon Triton (center), taken by Voyager 2 during its 1989 flyby
The definition of planet has included a wide range of celestial bodies. Early use of the term was never strict and its meaning has blurred to include or exclude a variety of objects. By the end of the 19th century, the word planet had a more firm definition: it applied only to objects in the Solar System, a number small enough that any differences could be dealt with on an individual basis. After 1992 however, astronomers began to discover many additional objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, as well as hundreds of extrasolar planets. These discoveries not only increased the number of potential planets, but expanded their variety and peculiarity. The issue of a clear definition for planet came to a head in 2005 with the discovery of the trans-Neptunian object Eris, a body larger than the smallest then-accepted planet, Pluto. In its 2006 response to the discovery, the International Astronomical Union released its decision on the matter. Its definition, which applies only to the Solar System, states that a planet is a body that orbits the Sun, is massive enough for its own gravity to make it round, and has "cleared its neighbourhood" of smaller objects around its orbit. Under this new definition, Pluto and the other trans-Neptunian objects do not qualify as planets. (more...)

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Mimas Cassini.jpg
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Mimas is a moon of Saturn. It was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, after whom the large crater in the image is named. It is the twentieth-largest moon in the Solar System, and the smallest astronomical body that is known to be rounded in shape because of self-gravitation. This photograph of Mimas was taken by the unmanned spacecraft Cassini in 2010.

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  • GAT: A Glossary of Astronomical Terms
  • Introduction to Astrophysics
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  • Observing the Sky from 30°S
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Hypervelocity stellar "meteors"

The Hubble Space Telescope image shows four high-velocity, runaway stars plowing through their local interstellar medium. Credit: NASA - Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys.{{free media}}

Def. a star moving faster than 65 km/s to 100 km/s relative to the average motion of the stars in the Sun's neighbourhood is called a high-velocity star.

Def. a high-velocity star moving through space with an abnormally high velocity relative to the surrounding interstellar medium is called a runaway star.

Def. a star whose elliptical orbit takes it well outside the plane of its galaxy at steep angles is called a halo star.

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Astronomical events

All times UT unless otherwise specified.

2 January, 06:00 Saturn at conjunction
3 January, 05:20 Earth at perihelion
4 January, 02:00 Quadrantids peak
5 January, 18:42 Moon occults Saturn
6 January, 01:41 New moon and partial solar eclipse
6 January, 04:54 Venus at greatest western elongation
6 January, 12:24 Moon occults Pluto
9 January, 04:39 Moon at apogee
11 January Pluto at conjunction, occultation
21 January, 05:13 Full moon and total lunar eclipse
21 January, 20:06 Moon at perigee
30 January, 02:54 Mercury at superior conjunction
31 January, 17:35 Moon occults Venus

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