History Weblecture for Unit 61
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The planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are visible to the naked eye, and we really don't know when men first put names to them, or decided they were "wanderers" against the more permanent background stars. This Babylonian cuneiform tablet from the reign of Artexerxes (460 years before the birth of Jesus the Christ) describes Jupiter as stationary in Pisces.
Christe Ann McMenomy 2007 Paris: the Louvre
The discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto depended on the use and improvement of telescopes. The first planet discovered with a telescope was Uranus. Its discover was born and named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in Hanover, Germany, but when he moved to England as a young adult, he changed his name to Frederick William Herschel and was widely known as William. He was primarily a musician, playing the violin, oboe and organ. He gave concerts as director of the orchestra in Bath, England, and his sister Caroline appeared as the soprano soloist.
When they were not making music for the amusement of others, William and his sister spent their time stargazing. William was so good at his observations (useful for calendar-making and navigation) that he became the King's Astronomer to George III.
William built telescope after telescope -- more than 400 all together, trying to improve his ability to resolve and magnify the objects he observed. Caroline made her own observations, but also helped William record his observations: new moons of Saturn (Enceladas and Mimas), new moons of Uranus (Titania and Oberon). He showed that the solar system as a whole was moving through space, and that the Milky Way had the shape of a disk.
Even after William's marriage, his sister Caroline continued to work as his assistant. She had her own telescopes and independently discovered comets, and M110, a companion to the Andromeda Galaxy. For her work she was given her own stipend from King George — unusual employment for a women in those days. She was the first woman presented with a Gold Medal from the Royal Society, which recognized her in 1828 for her astronomical work; the next woman so recognized was Vera Rubin (who did work on the rotation of galaxies) in 1996, almost 170 years later. She was even made an honorary member of the Society.
After his death, William's son John continued his astronomical work. If you don't like the Julien calendar, blame John: he was responsible for its use in astronomy. He named most of the moons of Saturn and Uranus after his father discovered them, and if that wasn't enough, he investigated the causes of color blindness. During his trip to South Africa, John observed Halley's comet and, as a recreational respite from the rigors of astronomy, with his wife Margaret he produced a catalog of South African flora. He was intrigued by the theories of Charles Lyell (whom you'd better remember from our discussions of geological theories) and agreed with a gradualist view, rather than a catastrophic one, of geological formations. His views influenced Charles Babbage in that mathematician's design of the first programmable computer. While he was in Africa, the HMS Beagle dropped anchor at Cape Town, and John Herschel met with Charles Darwin, who refers to John as "one of our greatest philosophers" in the introduction to The Origin of Species.
Read through the brief descriptions of the discovery of these planets: click on the Discovery section title, then read through the six sections on Ancient and Greek discoveries, the Reanissance, the age of the Telescope, Calileo, discovering new planets, and planetary satellites.
Exploration of the planets (including Earth) from near space became possible with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. This event also touched off the "space race". As with the efforts to discover new elements a century earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to gain prestige by being the first to achieve the goals of putting men in space, or sending craft to other planets.
Review the NASA Chronology of Lunar and Planetary Exploration, which lists every mission, successful or not, for any nation from Sputnik in 1957 through planned launches in 2022.
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