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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, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena include supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, 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, physical cosmology, is concerned with 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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June 1997 HST/STIS Image of the optical afterglow of GRB 970508
GRB 970508 was a gamma-ray burst (GRB) detected on May 8, 1997, at 21:42 UTC. A gamma-ray burst is a highly luminous flash associated with an explosion in a distant galaxy and producing gamma rays, the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation, and often followed by a longer-lived "afterglow" emitted at longer wavelengths (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio).

GRB 970508 was detected by the Gamma Ray Burst Monitor on the Italian–Dutch X-ray astronomy satellite BeppoSAX. Astronomer Mark Metzger determined that GRB 970508 occurred at least 6 billion light years from Earth; this was the first measurement of the distance to a gamma-ray burst.

Until this burst, astronomers had not reached a consensus regarding how far away GRBs occur from Earth. Some supported the idea that GRBs occur within the Milky Way, but are visibly faint because they are not highly energetic. Others concluded that GRBs occur in other galaxies at cosmological distances and are extremely energetic. Although the possibility of multiple types of GRBs meant that the two theories were not mutually exclusive, the distance measurement unequivocally placed the source of the GRB outside the Milky Way, effectively ending the debate.

GRB 970508 was also the first burst with an observed radio frequency afterglow. By analyzing the fluctuating strength of the radio signals, astronomer Dale Frail calculated that the source of the radio waves had expanded almost at the speed of light. This provided strong evidence that GRBs are relativistically expanding explosions.

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Space-related Portals

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Cassiopeia A
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassiopeia A (Cas A) is a supernova remnant in the constellation Cassiopeia and the brightest astronomical radio source in the sky, with a flux of 2720 Jy at 1 GHz. The supernova occurred approximately 11,000 light-years (3.4 kpc) away in the Milky Way.

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Astronomical events

All times UT unless otherwise specified.

5 October, 22:18 Moon at perigee
9 October, 00:00 Draconids peak
9 October, 03:47 New moon
16 October, 07:16 Mars at southern solstice
17 October, 19:15 Moon at apogee
22 October, 08:00 Orionids peak
24 October Uranus at opposition
24 October, 16:45 Full moon
26 October, 14:18 Venus at inferior conjunction
31 October, 20:22 Moon at perigee


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