Monday, June 15, 2009

Planetary Motion

Year of Discovery: 1609

Even after Copernicus simplified and corrected the structure of the solar system by discovering that the sun, not the earth, lay at the center of it, he (like all astronomers before him) as sumed that the planets or bited the sun in perfect circles. As a result, errors continued to exist in the predicted position of the planets.

Kepler discovered the concept of the ellipse and proved that planets actually follow slightly elliptical or bits. With this discovery, science was finally presented with an accurate pictures of the position and mechanics of the solar system. After 400 years of vastly improved technology, our image of how planets move is still the one Kepler created. We haven’t changed or corrected it one bit, and likely never will.

For 2,000 years, astronomers placed the earth at the center of the universe and assumed that all heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles around it. But predictions using this system never matched actual measure ments. Scientists invented epi-circles—small circles that the planets actually rolled around that, them selves, rolled around the great circular or bits for each planet. Still there were errors, so scientists created epi-circles on the epi-circles.

Copernicus discovered that the sun lay at the center of the solar system, but still assumed that all planets traveled in perfect circles. Most epi-circles were eliminated, but errors in planetary plotting continued.

Johannes Kepler was born in Southern Germany in 1571, 28 years after the release of Copernicus’s discovery. Kepler suffered through a troubled up bringing. His aunt was burned at the stake as a witch. His mother almost suffered the same fate. The boy was of ten sick and had bad eye sight that glasses could not correct. Still, Kepler en joyed a bril liant but again troubled—university career.

In 1597 he took a position as an assistant to Tycho Brahe, famed German astronomer. For decades Tycho had been measur ing the position of the planets (especially Mars) with far greater precision than any other European astronomer. When Tycho died in 1601 he left all his notes and tables of planetary readings to Kepler.

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