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Modern Techniques, Discoveries, and Theories

Astronomy was revolutionized in the second half of the 19th cent. by the introduction of techniques based on photography and spectroscopy. Interest shifted from determining the positions and distances of stars to studying their physical composition (see stellar structure and stellar evolution). The dark lines in the solar spectrum that had been observed by W. H. Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer were interpreted in an elementary fashion by G. R. Kirchhoff on the basis of classical physics, although a complete explanation came only with the quantum theory. Between 1911 and 1913, Ejnar Hertzsprung and H. N. Russell studied the relation between the colors and luminosities of typical stars (see Hertzsprung-Russell diagram). With the construction of ever more powerful telescopes (see observatory), the boundaries of the known universe constantly increased. E. P. Hubble's study of the distant galaxies led him to conclude that the universe is expanding (see Hubble's law). Using Cepheid variables as distance indicators, Harlow Shapley determined the size and shape of our galaxy, the Milky Way. During World War II Walter Baade defined two "populations" of stars, and suggested that an examination of these different types might trace the spiral shape of our own galaxy (see stellar populations). In 1951 a Yerkes Observatory group led by William W. Morgan detected evidence of two spiral arms in the Milky Way galaxy.

Various rival theories of the origin and overall structure of the universe, e.g., the big bang and steady state theories, have been formulated (see cosmology). Albert Einstein's theory of relativity plays a central role in all modern cosmological theories. In 1963, the moon passed in front of the radio source 3C-273, allowing Cyril Hazard to calculate the exact position of the source. With this information, Maarten Schmidt photographed the object's spectrum using the 200-in. (5-m) reflector on Palomar Mt., then the world's largest telescope. He interpreted the result as coming from an object, now known as a quasar, at an extreme distance and receding from us at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. In 1967 Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered a radio source a few hundred light years away featuring regular pulses at intervals of about 1 second with an accuracy of repetition of one-millionth of a second. This was the first discovered pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star emitting lighthouse-type beams of energy, the end result of the death of a star in a supernova explosion.

The discovery by Karl Jansky in 1931 that radio signals were emitted by celestial bodies initiated the science of radio astronomy. Most recently, the frontiers of astronomy have been expanded by space exploration. Perturbations and interference from the earth's atmosphere make space-based observations necessary for infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray astronomy. The Surveyor and Apollo spacecraft of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped launch the new field of astrogeology. A series of interplanetary probes, such as Mariner 2 (1962) and 5 (1967) to Venus, Mariner 4 (1965) and 6 (1969) to Mars, and Voyager 1 (1979) and 2 (1979), provided a wealth of data about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune; more recently, the Magellan probe to Venus (1990) and the Galileo probe to Jupiter (1995) have continued this line of research (see satellite, artificial; space probe). The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, has made possible visual observations of a quality far exceeding those of earthbound instruments.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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