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Nearly contemporary with Regiomontanus were Fracastoro and Peter Apian, whose original observations on comets are worthy of mention because they first noticed that the tails of these bodies always point away from the sun. Leonardo da Vinci was the first to give the true explanation of earth-shine on the moon, and similarly the moon-illumination of the earth; and this no doubt had great weight in disposing of the popular notion of an essential difference of nature between the earth and celestial bodies—all of which helped to prepare the way for Copernicus and the great revolution in astronomical thought.


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Throughout the Middle Ages the progress of astronomy was held back by a combination of untoward circumstances. A prolonged reaction from the heights attained by the Greek philosophers was to be expected. The uprising of the Mohammedan world, and the savage conquerors in the East did not produce conditions favorable to the origin and development of great ideas. At the birth of Copernicus, however, in , the time was ripening for fundamental changes from the ancient system, the error of which had helped to hold back the development of the science for centuries.

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The fifteenth century was most fruitful in a general quickening of intelligence, the invention of printing had much to do with this, as it spread a knowledge of the Greek writers, and led to conflict of authorities. Even Aristotle and Ptolemy were not entirely in harmony, yet each was held inviolate. It was the age of the Reformation, too, and near the end of the century the discovery of America exerted a powerful stimulus in the advance of thought. Copernicus searched the works of the ancient writers and philosophers, and embodied in this new order such of their ideas as commended themselves in the elaboration of his own system.

Pythagoras alone and his philosophy looked in the true direction. Many believe that he taught that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system; [43] but his views were mingled with the speculative philosophy of the Greeks, and none of his writings, barring a few meager fragments, have come down to our modern age. To many philosophers, through all these long centuries, the true theory of the celestial motions must have been obvious, but their views were not formulated, nor have they been preserved in writing.

So the fact remains that Copernicus alone first proved the truth of the system which is recognized to-day. The seventy years of his life were largely devoted to the preparation of this work, which necessitated many observations as well as intricate calculations based upon them. Being a canon in the church, he naturally hesitated about publishing his revolutionary views, his friend Rheticus first doing this for him in outline in So simple are the great principles that they may be embodied in very few words; what appears to us as the daily revolution of the heavens is not a real motion, but only an apparent one; that is, the heavens are at rest, while the earth itself is in motion, turning round an axis which passes through its center.

And the second proposition is that the earth is simply one of the six known planets; and they all revolve round the sun as the true center. The solar system, therefore, is "heliocentric," or sun-centered, not "geocentric" or earth-centered, as taught by the Ptolemaic theory. Copernicus demonstrates clearly how his system explains the retrograde motion of the planets and [44] their stationary points, no matter whether they are within the orbit of the earth, as Mercury and Venus, or outside of it, as Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. His system provides also the means of ascertaining with accuracy the proportions of the solar system, or the relative distances of the planets from the sun and from each other.

In this respect also his system possessed a vast advantage over that of Ptolemy, and the planetary distances which Copernicus computed are very close approximations to the measures of the present day. On the whole we may regard the lifework of Copernicus as fundamentally the most significant in the history and progress of astronomy. Clear as Copernicus had made the demonstration of the truth of his new system, it nevertheless failed of immediate and universal acceptance. The Ptolemaic system was too strongly intrenched, and the motions of all the bodies in the sky were too well represented by it.

Accurate observations were greatly needed, and the Landgrave William IV. Three years after the death of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe was born, and when he was 30 the King of Denmark built for him the famous observatory of Uraniborg, where the great astronomer passed nearly a quarter of a century in critically observing the positions of the stars and planets. Tycho was celebrated as a designer and constructor of new types of astronomical instruments, and he printed a large volume of these designs, which form the basis of many in use at the present day.

Unfortunately for the genius of Tycho and the significance of his work, the invention of the telescope had not yet been made, so that his observations had not the modern degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, they were destined to play a most important part in the progress of astronomy. If the outer planets were displaced among the stars by the annual motion of the earth round the sun, he argued, then the fixed stars must be similarly displaced—unless indeed they be at such vast distances that their motions would be too slight to be visible.

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Of course we know now that this is really true, and that no instruments that Tycho was able to build could possibly have detected the motions, the effects of which we now recognize in the case of the nearer fixed stars in their annual, or parallactic, orbits. The remarkably accurate instruments devised by Tycho Brahe and employed by him in improving the observations of the positions of the heavenly bodies were no doubt built after descriptions of astrolabes such as Hipparchus used, as described by Ptolemy.

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One is a polar astrolabe, mounted somewhat as a modern equatorial telescope is, and the meridian circle is adjustable so that it can be used in any place, no matter what its latitude might be. There is a graduated equatorial ring at right angles to the polar axis, so that the astrolabe could be used for making observations outside the meridian as well as on it.

This equatorial circle slides through grooves, and is furnished with movable sights, and a plumb line from the zenith or highest point of the meridian circle makes it possible to give the necessary adjustment in the vertical. Screws for adjustment at the bottom are provided, just as in our modern instruments, and two observers were [47] necessary, taking their sights simultaneously; unless, as in one type of the instrument, a clock, or some sort of measure of time, was employed.

It resembles the equatorial astrolabe somewhat, but has a second ring inclined to the equatorial one at an angle equal to the obliquity of the ecliptic. In observing, the equatorial ring was revolved round till the ecliptic ring came into coincidence with the plane of the ecliptic in the sky. Then the observation of a star's longitude and latitude, as referred to the ecliptic plane, could be made, quite as well as that of right ascension and declination on the equatorial plane. But it was necessary to work quickly, as the adjustment on the ecliptic would soon disappear and have to be renewed.

Tycho is often called the father of the science of astronomical observation, because of the improvements in design and construction of the instruments he used. His largest instrument was a mural quadrant, a quarter-circle of copper, turning parallel to the north-and-south face of a wall, its axis turning on a bearing fixed in the wall.

The radius of this quadrant was nine feet, and it was graduated or divided so as to read the very small angle of ten seconds of arc—an extraordinary degree of precision for his day. Tycho built also a very large alt-azimuth quadrant, of six feet radius.

Its operation was very much as if his mural quadrant could be swung round in azimuth. At several of the great observatories of the present day, as Greenwich and Washington, there are instruments of a similar type, [48] but much more accurate, because the mechanical work in brass and steel is executed by tools that are essentially perfect, and besides this the power of the telescope is superadded to give absolute direction, or pointing on the object under observation. Excellent clocks are necessary for precise observation with such an instrument; but neither Tycho Brahe, nor Hevelius was provided with such accessories.

Hevelius did not avail himself of the telescope as an aid to precision of observation, claiming that pinhole sights gave him more accurate results. It was a dispute concerning this question that Halley was sent over from London to Danzig to arbitrate. There could be but one way to decide; the telescope with its added power magnifies any displacement of the instrument, and thereby enables the observer to point his instrument more exactly. So he can detect smaller errors and differences of direction than he can without it. And what is of great importance in more modern astronomy, the telescope makes it possible to observe accurately the position of objects so faint that they are wholly invisible to the naked eye.

Most fortunate it was for the later development of astronomical theory that Tycho Brahe not only was a practical or observational astronomer of the highest order, but that he confined himself studiously for years to observations of the places of the planets. Of Mars he accumulated an especially long and accurate series, and among those who assisted him in his work was a young and brilliant pupil named Johann Kepler.

Strongly impressed with the truth of the Copernican System, Kepler was free to reject the erroneous compromise system devised by Tycho Brahe, and soon after Tycho's death Kepler addressed himself seriously to the great problem that no one had ever attempted to solve, viz: to find out what the laws of motion of the planets round the sun really are.

Of course he took the fullest advantage of all that Ptolemy and Copernicus had done before him, and he had in addition the splendid observations of Tycho Brahe as a basis to work upon. Copernicus, while he had effected the tremendous advance of substituting the sun for the earth as the center of motion, nevertheless clung to the erroneous notion of Ptolemy that all the bodies of the sky must perforce move at uniform speeds, and in circular curves, the circle being the only "perfect curve. Naturally he attempted the nearest planet first, and that was Mars—the planet that Tycho had assigned to him for research.

How fortunate that the orbit of Mars was the one, of all the planets, to show practically the greatest divergence from the ancient conditions of uniform motion in a perfectly circular orbit! Had the orbit of Mars chanced to be as nearly circular as is that of Venus, Kepler might well have been driven to abandon his search for the true curve of planetary motion. However, the facts of the cosmos were on his side, but the calculations essential in testing his various hypotheses were of the most tedious nature, because logarithms were not yet known in his day. His first discovery was that the orbit of Mars is certainly not a circle, but oval or elliptic in figure.

And the sun, he soon found, could not be in the center of the ellipse, so he made a series of trial calculations with the sun located in one of the foci of the ellipse instead. Then he found he could make his calculated places of Mars agree quite perfectly with Tycho Brahe's observed positions, if only he gave up the other ancient requisite of perfectly uniform motion.

On doing this, it soon appeared that Mars, when in perihelion, or nearest the sun, always moved swiftest, while at its greatest distance from the sun, or aphelion, its orbital velocity was slowest. Kepler did not busy himself to inquire why these revolutionary discoveries of his were as they were; he simply went on making enough trials on Mars, and then on the other planets in turn, to satisfy [51] himself that all the planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular in form, and are so located in space that the center of the sun is at one of the two foci of each orbit.

This is known as Kepler's first law of planetary motion. The second one did not come quite so easy; it concerned the variable speed with which the planet moves at every point of the orbit. We must remember how handicapped he was in solving this problem: only the geometry of Euclid to work with, and none of the refinements of the higher mathematics of a later day.

But he finally found a very simple relation which represented the velocity of the planet everywhere in its orbit. It was this: if we calculate the area swept, or passed over, by the planet's radius vector that is, the line joining its center to the sun's center during a week's time near perihelion, and then calculate the similar area for a week near aphelion, or indeed for a week when Mars is in any intermediate part of its orbit, we shall find that these areas are all equal to each other.

So Kepler formulated his second great law of planetary motion very simply: the radius vector of any planet describes, or sweeps over, equal areas in equal times. And he found this was true for all the planets.