Astronomy and Space Timeline

The Twentieth Century

Pictures from STS-1 First Space Shuttle Mission - Space Shuttle orbiter Columbia on the ground
One of the high points of 20th century space exploration was the first launch of the space shuttle fleet. Columbia was lofted into orbit on its maiden flight on April 12, 1981. NASA

As civilizations formed and spread across the continents, their interest in the sky (and what it meant) grew as observers kept records of what they saw. Not every "record" was in writing; some monuments and buildings were created with an eye toward a link with the sky. People were moving from a simple "awe" of the sky to an understanding of the motions of celestial objects, a connection between the sky and the seasons, and ways to "use" the sky to create calendars.

 

Nearly every culture had a connection to the sky, often as a calendrical tool. Nearly all also saw their gods, goddesses, and other heroes and heroines reflected in the constellations, or in the motions of the sun, moon, and stars. Many tales that originated during the ancient epochs are still told today. 

Ancient Astronomy

  • 2680 BCE: The Great Pyramid at Giza completed. It is thought that the pyramids may reflect the three stars in Orion's Belt.
  • 2300 BCE: Chinese astronomers start to observe the sky and create charts of the constellations
  • 2296 BCE: A comet is observed for the first time by the Chinesen and noted as a possible omen.
  • 1860 BCE: The construction of Stonehenge in what is now England. Researchers think there is some connection to the sky and the standing stones.
  • 1800 BCE: Babylonians begin to keep observational records.
  • 1600 BCE: Chaldean astronomers identify the zodiac, the zone of constellations against which the Sun, Moon, and planets appear to move.
  • 763 BCE: Solar eclipse observed and recorded .by Babylonians.
  • 624 BCE: Thales of Miletus was born.
  • 585 BCE: Thales of Miletus predicted a solar eclipse.
  • 547 BCE: Thales of Miletus died.
  • 500 BCE: Pythagoras suggests that the Earth is a sphere and not flat, as had been previously assumed
  • 440 BCE: Greek philosopher Leucippus, his student Democritus present the concept that all matter consists of fundamental particles called atoms. ("Atom" comes from the Greek word meaning "indivisible.")
  • 365 BCE: Chinese apparently first spot the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye.
  • 350 BCE: Aristotle writes Meteorologica, the first book on weather.
  • 300 BCE: Euclid, a Greek from Alexandria, writes Elements, introducing geometry (which means "land measurement").
  • 270 BCE: Aristarchus says that the Sun is at the center of the solar system; this is generally dismissed as folly. 
  • 240 BCE: An object later known as Comet Halley is observed by the Chinese.
  • 212 BCE: Archimedes calculates the area of circle, defines the principles of the lever, the screw, and buoyancy.
  • 194 BCE: Eratosthenes calculates the size of Earth.
  • 120 BCE: Hipparchus of Rhodes (161 BC-122 BC) Defines the cosmos by latitude and longitude; and makes triangular measurement of celestial navigation.
  • 127: Alexandrian astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) publishes Almagest, in which he cataloged 1,022 stars - the previous known number of stars being 850. This was the primary astronomy text for 14 centuries.

Astronomy from 1400 to 1600

  • 1473: Nicolaus Copernicus born in Poland.
  • 1514: Astronomer Nicolas Copernicus suggests that Earth moves around the Sun.
  • 1543: Copernicus publishes De Revolutionibus Orbium Caoelestium (The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), the theory that Earth revolves around the Sun, while on his deathbed.
  • 1546: Tycho Brahe born in Denmark.
  • 1552: Books on geography and astronomy are burned in England because people thought they contained magic.
  • 1564: Galileo Galilei born in Italy.
  • 1572: Tycho Brahe observes a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia.
  • 1583: Galileo Galilei demonstrates that successive beats of a pendulum always take place in the same length of time, regardless of the distance through which it swings.
  • 1590: Microscope invented by Dutch spectacle maker Zacharias Janssen. Galileo Galileiexperiments with falling objects.
  • 1593: Galileo Galilei invents a water thermometer.
  • 1596: Johannes Kepler publishes Mysterium cosmographicum.
  • 1598: Tycho Brahe describes his experiments in astronomy.
  • 1608: Hans Lippershey is thought to have invented the telescope
  • 1609: Galileo Galilei adopts the telescope for sky viewing and makes improvements to its design. 

    The Modern Age of Astronomy

    The modern age of astronomy began just before the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. In the new century, several technological advances occurred that spurred both astronomy exploration and space science. Here are some high points of the century's advances. 

    • 1903: Orville Wright launches first powered flight in history, flying at Kitty Hawk for 12 seconds—four flights were made on December 17th. Earlier that year, Russian physicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky claimed, with complex mathematical theories that man will one day travel in space and occupy planets. Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky publishes The Investigation of Outer Space by Means of Reaction Apparatus.
    • 1904: Discovery of interstellar matter by Johannes Hartmann.
    • 1905: Albert Einstein publishes "theory of relativity."
    • 1906: An explosion at Tunguska, Siberia, is attributed to comet fragments.
    • 1915: Discovery of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Earth (except the Sun).
    • 1919: The International Astronomical Union founded.
    • 1924: Edwin Hubble proves that galaxies are systems independent of the Milky Way.
    • 1930: Clyde Tombaugh discovers the 9th planet, Pluto.
    • 1931: Karl Jansky invents radio astronomy
    • 1939: Frank J Whittle invents the jet engine. Robert Watson-Watt invents radar.
    • 1945: Radar contact is established with the Moon. Arthur C Clarke proposes communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth - by 1965 his visionary ideas become reality.
    • 1947: Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 rocket plane.
    • 1948: The Hale reflector telescope is installed at the Mount Palomar observatory in California.
    • 1949: Rocket testing ground is established at Cape Canaveral.
    • 1951: First space flight by living creatures when the U.S sends four monkeys into the stratosphere.
    • 1955: The Jodrell Bank telescope is completed.
    • 1957: USSR launches the Sputnik 1 satellite into space.
    • 1958 NASA founded.
    • 1959: First pictures of far side of the moon by Luna III.
    • 1961: Yuri Gagarin the first man in space. Alan B. Shephard Jr is the first American in space.
    • 1962: John Glenn becomes first American to orbit Earth in space. The first x-ray source is discovered in Scorpius.
    • 1963: Valentina Tereshkova becomes first woman in space in Vostok 6. First quasar discovered.
    • 1965: Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov makes the first space walk.
    • 1966: Star Trek debuts on NBC. Neil Armstrong and David Scott makes the first space docking in Gemini 8. Luna IX probe lands on the Moon, while Venera III makes a landing on Venus.
    • 1967: Bell and Hewish discover the first pulsar
    • 1969: Neil Armstrong is the first man on the moon followed by Buzz Aldrin.
    • 1970: Apollo 13 forced to abort Lunar Mission when oxygen tank explodes. The crew managed a safe return to Earth.
    • 1971: The Russians launch Salyut I, the first orbital space station.
    • 1975 :Soviet Soyuz 19 docks with Apollo 18. Venera IX makes a landing on Venus and relays pictures of the planet back to the Earth
    • 1976: Viking I and 2 arrive at Mars.
    • 1977: Star Wars debuts. Rings around Uranus discovered. The Voyager deep space probes are launched.
    • 1978: Pioneer 1 and 2 reach Venus; James Christy discovers Charon, a moon of Pluto.
    • 1979-1981: The Voyager spacecraft pass Jupiter and Saturn, relaying an enormous amount of information back.
    • 1981: Shuttle Columbia launched.
    • 1982: Rings around Neptune discovered.
    • 1983: Sally Ride is first U.S. woman in space. Pioneer 10 becomes the first man-made object to travel beyond the solar system.
    • 1986: Soviet Union launches Mir space station; space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all aboard. Voyager 2 reaches Uranus, finding six new moons.
    • 1987: Supernova SN1987A flares up, becoming the first supernova visible to the naked eye since 1604.
    • 1989: Voyager 2 reaches Neptune, discovering a ring system and eight moons.
    • 1990: Hubble Space Telescope launched.
    • 1991: Helen Sharman becomes the first British astronaut, on Soyuz TM-12.
    • 1992: COBE satellite discovers ripples from the Big Bang. NASA launches the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program.
    • 1994: An asteroid passes earth at only 160 000 km (100,000 miles). Hubble Space Telescope finds evidence for a black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy.
    • 1996: NASA scientists announce the discovery of proof of living organisms on a Mars meteorite in Antarctica. That is later challenged and remains inconclusive. 
    • 1997: First ever space funeral when Timothy Leary's ashes are launched into space. U.S. space probe Pathfinder lands on Mars. 
    • 1998: Construction started on the International Space Station. Supernova observations suggest that the universe is expanding at an increased rate. This leads to the discovery of "dark matter"
    • 1999: The Stardust mission is launched to catch cometary particle samples. 

    Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.