Humans have looked to the skies over the ages and are fascinated by its mysteries, seeking to bring meaning to them. We take it for granted that the Earth rotates around the sun and there are other planets which have their own moons, just like ours. These may seem obvious now but facts like these were at the centre of debate for centuries, and they have transformed our view and understanding of the world and of ourselves.
In the last few centuries, a few individuals have stuck out among the rest and enhanced our knowledge about the Universe in which we dwell: famous astronomers. Many of them are exceptional scientists, who are trained in many disciplines, clarified the heavens with varying degrees of precision. Astronomers have also made a major contribution to our understanding of motion and physics.
On this list are some famous astronomers you should know who have made the most amazing contributions to astronomy. These are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, giving us the understanding of the universe we have today. Without these people, there is no way that we, for example, would be able to create personalized maps of the stars, reproducing the exact position of the stars in our night sky, over the last 120 years.
Nicolas Copernicus (1473 - 1543)
The Polish astronomer stated that planets have Sun as their set point to which their movements are to be referenced and that Earth is a planet which, apart from moving around the Sun annually, also often revolves once a day on its axis; and that gradual long term changes in the orientation of that axis contribute to the equinox precession. This interpretation of the heavens is commonly referred to as the heliocentric, or "Sun-centered system," derived from the Greek Helios, meaning "Sun." He stated that the theory of Ptolemy was over-complicated in attempting to clarify patterns that otherwise would not have made sense. Therefore, he suggested the heliocentric model that we still use today.
Copernicus's hypothesis had significant implications for later Scientific Revolution pioneers such as prominent figures like Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. Copernicus probably came upon his core idea sometime around the year 1508 and 1514. Throughout those years, he penned a document commonly called the commentariolus (little commentary). The book of his observations, which includes the final edition of his hypothesis, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI (Six Books About the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs), was printed when he was 70 years of age and lay on his death bed. His theories would not be believed until his model was verified by Galileo's study in 1632.
Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)
Galileo Galilei was an Italian scientist who made significant achievements to the field of astronomy motion, strength of materials and the scientific method's development. The launch of a profound reform in motion analysis was marked by his theory of inertia, parabolic trajectories, and the law of falling bodies. His conviction that the book of nature was written in terms of mathematics transformed natural philosophy from a linguistic, analytical account to the mathematical account, in which experiment became a known means of exploring the truth of nature.
His discoveries with the telescope gradually revolutionized astronomy and opened the way for the Copernican heliocentric system to be embraced, but his support for that system inevitably led to a reformation process against him.
Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695)
Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch astronomer made notable strides in physics, astronomy, and horology. He designed improved telescopes that enabled him to make many significant discoveries in astronomy.
In 1655, he discovered a thin plain ring around Saturn; he also uncovered titan the first of the moons of Saturn. He was the first person known to have created an Orion Nebula drawing.
Work in astronomy involved precise timekeeping, and this motivated Huygens to fix this problem. He then developed the first pendulum timer in 1656, which vastly improved the precision of calculating time.
Huygens suggested in his other experiments that light is conveyed in waves. This was opposed by Newton, who preferred the particle model. The modern theory of light incorporates all of these to generate the wave-particle dichotomy principle. He was recently celebrated as the probe sent to examine Titan was named after him.
Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630)
Johannes Kepler was a strong defender and supporter of Copernicus. He modified his theory somewhat to accommodate more modern consideration, making him one of the Scientific Revolution's leading lights during the 16th and 17th centuries. He found out that the planets rotated in elliptic orbits rather than perfect circles, as Copernicus had assumed.
This concept became the first planetary law to be written in 1609 by Kepler. His second law was that planets don't progress at a constant pace throughout their orbit. His third law, published a decade later, was that the distance between two planets' orbits is proportional to their distances from the Sun. These laws made him an astronomy giant.
Edmond Halley (1656 - 1743)
Edmund Halley was an astronomer from England who calculated the comet's orbit, now called Halley's Comet. He helped Isaac Newton financially and was partially responsible for convincing him to publish his works. He is also known for his part in the publication of Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
A man with many scientific aspirations, Edmund Halley, made discoveries in numerous fields. He developed the first maps of Earth's magnetic field. He mastered the diving bell, using it to operate a successful underwater salvage operation. By using arrows to demonstrate their course, Halley traced the dominant winds of the Planet. Arrows are still used in meteorology to date.
Halley analyzed the positions of about 350 Southern Hemisphere stars and observed a Mercury movement from the island of Saint Helena. He assumed that to determine the Sun's distance, this phenomenon and possible movement of Venus can be used. Halley also used the first movement instrument at the Greenwich Observatory and developed a method for calculating longitude at sea by lunar measurements. He deduced, in 1710, that the stars must possess a modest motion of their own, balancing the current star positions with those enumerated in Ptolemy's catalog, and he detected this proper motion in three stars.
William Herschel (1738-1822)
William Herschel was a British composer and astronomer born in Germany, the father of sidereal astronomy, to systematically examine the cosmos. He identified Uranus and its two shining moons, Titania and Oberon; identified the moons of Saturn, Mimas, and Enceladus; found the ice caps of Mars, numerous asteroids and twofold stars and documented 2,500 deep-sky objects. The nebulae were hypothesized by him to be composed of stars, which led to the stellar evolution theory being established.
His interest in music prompted Herschel to pursue mathematics and the study of optics. While reading Robert Smith's Harmonics, he found Smith's other projects, such as A Compleat Framework of Opticks; during this time, he mastered telescope design techniques. His enthusiasm for astronomy took a turn when he encountered Royal Nevil Maskelyne, the English astronomer.
Subsequently, Herschel began constructing his telescopes and would spend several hours polishing and grinding mirrors each day. With a magnification capacity of over 6,000 times, he even made his oculars. He utilized his telescopes to study the stars and planets. His home-made telescopes were renowned for their excellent accuracy, and he started keeping an astronomical journal to document his observations in March of 1774.
Johann Gottfried Galle (1812 - 1910)
Johann Gottfried Galle was born in Germany. He was the first individual to view planet Neptune based on estimations by French mathematician, Urbain Le Verrier; Although, Neptune's discovery is usually attributed to Le Verrier and English astronomer John Crouch Adams, who first predicted its location
In 1835, Galle began working at the Berlin Observatory as an assistant to Johann Franz Encke. He worked there for 16 years. He used Fraunhofer-refractor with a 9-inch (22.5 cm) aperture that helped him uncover Saturn's dark interior ring. Galle even had three new comets identified between December 1839 and March 1840.
Galle continued to study celestial orbits and developed a formula for measuring the overall aurorae height and the meteors' direction. He compiled the data into a single body of work for the 414 comets, which were observed in 1894. He was also fascinated with the atmosphere and magnetic fields of the Earth. Galle wrote about 200 works in his lifetime.
Galle even made a significant contribution in calculating the mean distance between the Sun and the Earth (also known as the astronomical unit, AU). This transpires to be a daunting task, but he eventually estimates the distance within 10,000 miles.
Hubble, Edwin P. (Powell) (1889 - 1953)
The United States astronomer, Edwin Hubble, changed the world of astronomy by demonstrating how the Planet is much greater than generally thought and by presenting empirical proof for the idea of an evolving universe in the field of interstellar astronomy. The American astronomer has made three significant contributions.
First, he showed that a few of these nebulae, including the Andromeda nebula, were simply objects galaxies well outside our galaxy, using the latest 100-inch telescope by Mt. Wilson Observatory in California. This defied the view at that period; the Milky Way was known as the Universe. But Hubble's observations of cepheid variations in these galaxies brought him to his contentious finding, contrasting them to Cepheid's within the Milky Path.
Second, from 1922 to 1923, Hubble is the first person to identify galaxies based on what he saw. He categorized them based on forms: elliptical, irregular, and spiral, called the optical anatomy of a galaxy. Hubble's classification contributed to how he felt galaxies were forming in his Hubble Planetary Tuning Tool or Hubble Series.
His third contribution is the Hubble's development of redshift distance theorem in 1929, best known as Hubble's Law. The law specifies that the farther a galaxy, the larger the redshift. Therefore, we can calculate the galaxy's receding velocity by its redshift (Receding velocity is how quickly the galaxy travels far from us.)
Stephen Hawking (1942 - 2018)
One of the exceptional scientific minds ever to be known, Stephen Hawking. His cosmology and theoretical physics theory have had an immense influence on how space is known. He has a condition known as motor neuron syndrome associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and has been enduring this syndrome right from when he was 20 years old.
Hawking's first finding, made at Cambridge University during his time researching, is that from the time the Universe started (with the Big Bang), it would also end. His discoveries were published in many books, such as the top-selling 'A Brief History of Time'. He has a great sense of humor, and he featured on television shows such as The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, Little Britain, and Futurama. Stephen Hawking was among the top theoretical physicists globally, known for his research on black holes.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943 – Present)
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a distinguished astrophysicist for her detection of pulsars, spinning neutron stars which tend to ‘pulse’ because beams of light emitted are only seen when facing the Earth. Her discovery is considered one of the major discoveries of astronomy in the twentieth century; her discovery was in collaboration alongside her supervisor, Antony Hewish.
In 1967, using a telescope that she and Antony had originally designed to research the newly discovered star-like quasars, Jocelyn made her observation where she noticed a signal that pulsed once a second that was later confirmed to be a pulsar, 'Little Green Man 1'. For his involvement in the invention, Antony proceeded to collect the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Since then, Jocelyn has been a role model worldwide for female scientists and young students. She was assigned to the CBE for astronomy services in 1999, accompanied by a DBE in the year 2007. Her discovery of 'Little Green Man 1' was recorded by BBC Two's Horizon, and her story was highlighted in BBC Four's Beautiful Minds.
These astronomers’ contributions to society have grown more important over the centuries, as more and more learning is piled on top of theirs, right through to the present day. The digital camera in your smartphone and DSLR; the devices that drive social media growth, likely would not exist as they are in this present day, without decades invested by astronomers extending the bounds of our understanding.
The reports of astronomers on the increasing greenhouse effect on Venus, coupled with the discoveries on the changing climate on our planet has influenced our thoughts and attitudes towards the Earth's future. Astronomical findings do not just stay in a distant bubble, separated from us. They have a direct impact on our lives on Earth. Our bespoke maps of the night sky would not exist. There would be no History of SpaceX or History and Future of Virgin Galactic that’s for sure. One scientist attempting to sharpen the picture of his telescope, in a chain reaction of knowledge, could have facilitated the invention of Wi-Fi. Their discoveries will allow the next generation of scientists to take us into a healthier and happier future.
If you're interested in learning more about famous astronomers, check out our list of pioneering female astronomers!