Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Solar System Family

A snapshot freezes an instant in time. When we think about our solar system, we usually assume that it has always been much as it is now, and always will be. But what we know of the solar system (4,000 years of accumulated knowledge) is only a mere snapshot in comparison to its 4.6 billion–year age. It took humankind millennia to reach the conclusion that our planet is part of a solar system, one of many planets spinning on its axis orbiting the sun. These were centuries of wrestling with the earth-centered planetary system first of Aristotle, then of Ptolemy, trying to make the expected planetary orbits coincide with actual observation. This knowledge arose in some sense as a side product of the real initial goals: to be able to predict the motion of the planets and stars for the purpose of creating calendars and (in some cases) as a means of fortune-telling. However, even the earliest astronomers (of whom we know) wanted to do more than predict the planets’ motions. They wanted to know what was “really” going on. When Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler finally succeeded in doing this quite well in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a momentous time for astronomy and human understanding.
Understanding how the planets move is important, of course, but our understanding of the solar system hardly ends with that. In the last few decades of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, astronomers have learned more about the solar system than in all the 400 years since planetary motions were pretty well nailed down. As this chapter will show, the planetary neighborhood is a very interesting place, and our own world, the earth, is unique among the planets as a home to life.

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