In early times, astronomy only comprised the observation and predictions of the motions of objects visible to the naked eye. In some locations, such as Stonehenge, early cultures assembled massive artifacts that possibly had some astronomical purpose. In addition to their ceremonial uses, these observatories could be employed to determine the seasons, an important factor in knowing when to plant crops, as well as in understanding the length of the year.
Before tools such as the telescope were invented, early study of the stars had to be conducted from the only vantage points available, namely tall buildings and high ground using the naked eye. As civilizations developed, most notably in Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, Greece, India, and Central America, astronomical observatories were assembled, and ideas on the nature of the universe began to be explored. Most of early astronomy actually consisted of mapping the positions of the stars and planets, a science now referred to as astrometry. From these observations, early ideas about the motions of the planets were formed, and the nature of the Sun, Moon and the Earth in the universe were explored philosophically. The Earth was believed to be the center of the universe with the Sun, the Moon and the stars rotating around it. This is known as the geocentric model of the universe, or the Ptolemaic system, named after Ptolemy.
A particularly important early development was the beginning of mathematical and scientific astronomy, which began among the Babylonians, who laid the foundations for the later astronomical traditions that developed in many other civilizations. The Babylonians discovered that lunar eclipses recurred in a repeating cycle known as a saros.
Following the Babylonians, significant advances in astronomy were made in ancient Greece and the Hellenistic world. Greek astronomy is characterized from the start by seeking a rational, physical explanation for celestial phenomena. In the 3rd century BC, Aristarchus of Samos calculated the size of the Earth, and measured the size and distance of the Moon and Sun, and was the first to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system. In the 2nd century BC, Hipparchus discovered precession, calculated the size and distance of the Moon and invented the earliest known astronomical devices such as the astrolabe. Hipparchus also created a comprehensive catalog of 1020 stars, and most of the constellations of the northern hemisphere derive from Greek astronomy. The Antikythera mechanism (c. 150–80 BC) was an early analog computer designed to calculate the location of the Sun, Moon, and planets for a given date. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks appeared in Europe.
During the Middle Ages, astronomy was mostly stagnant in medieval Europe, at least until the 13th century. However, astronomy flourished in the Islamic world and other parts of the world. This led to the emergence of the first astronomical observatories in the Muslim world by the early 9th century. In 964, the Andromeda Galaxy, the largest galaxy in the Local Group, containing the Milky Way, was discovered by the Persian astronomer Azophi and first described in his Book of Fixed Stars. The SN 1006 supernova, the brightest apparent magnitude stellar event in recorded history, was observed by the Egyptian Arabic astronomer Ali ibn Ridwan and the Chinese astronomers in 1006. Some of the prominent Islamic (mostly Persian and Arab) astronomers who made significant contributions to the science include Al-Battani, Thebit, Azophi, Albumasar, Biruni, Arzachel, Al-Birjandi, and the astronomers of the Maragheh and Samarkand observatories. Astronomers during that time introduced many Arabic names now used for individual stars. It is also believed that the ruins at Great Zimbabwe and Timbuktu may have housed an astronomical observatory. Europeans had previously believed that there had been no astronomical observation in pre-colonial Middle Ages sub-Saharan Africa but modern discoveries show otherwise.
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