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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, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, 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 is physical cosmology, which is 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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Triton mosaic from Voyager 2
Triton is the largest moon of the planet Neptune, discovered on October 10, 1846 by William Lassell. It is the only large moon in the Solar System with a retrograde orbit, which is an orbit in the opposite direction to its planet's rotation. At 2700 km in diameter, it is the seventh-largest moon in the Solar System. Because of its retrograde orbit and composition similar to Pluto's, Triton is thought to have been captured from the Kuiper belt. Triton consists of a crust of frozen nitrogen over an icy mantle believed to cover a substantial core of rock and metal. The core makes up two-thirds of its total mass. Triton has a mean density of 2.061 g/cm3 and is composed of approximately 15–35% water ice.

Triton is one of the few moons in the Solar System known to be geologically active. As a consequence, its surface is relatively young, with a complex geological history revealed in intricate and mysterious cryovolcanic and tectonic terrains. Part of its crust is dotted with geysers believed to erupt nitrogen.

The moon was discovered by British astronomer William Lassell just 17 days after Neptune itself was discovered by German astronomers Johann Gottfried Galle and Heinrich Louis d'Arrest, who were following co-ordinates given them by French astronomer and mathematician Urbain Le Verrier.

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Mimas Cassini.jpg
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Mimas is a moon of Saturn. It was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, after whom the large crater in the image is named. It is the twentieth-largest moon in the Solar System, and the smallest astronomical body that is known to be rounded in shape because of self-gravitation. This photograph of Mimas was taken by the unmanned spacecraft Cassini in 2010.

April anniversaries

  • 3 April 2014 – NASA announces that the Cassini orbiter has found evidence of an underground body of water on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn
  • 12 April 1961 – Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human to enter outer space when he is launched into orbital flight in Vostok 1
  • 19 April 1971 – The first space station, Salyut 1, is launched into orbit
  • 24 April 1990 – The Hubble Space Telescope, a powerful research tool and public relations boon for astronomy, is launched into orbit

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Astronomical events

All times UT unless otherwise specified.

1 April, 00:21 Moon at apogee
5 April, 08:51 New moon
11 April, 19:42 Mercury at greatest western elongation
16 April, 22:13 Moon at perigee
19 April, 11:12 Full moon
22 April Uranus at conjunction
23 April, 02:00 Lyrids peak
25 April, 14:27 Moon occults Saturn
25 April, 19:49 Moon occults Pluto
28 April, 18:23 Moon at apogee

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