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The Canals of Mars
Percival Lowell's Martian Canals. Mars has fascinated humanity for centuries, especially when it was viewed through a telescope for the first time. Many observers noted linear features connecting dark spots on the face of Mars. These were interpreted by some observers, most notably Percival Lowell, as canals built by a great, dying Martian civilization to carry water from the poles to bring water to their crops. Later, photographs proved that the "canals" were simply an optical illusion.

The History of Astronomy

Astronomy has been practiced for as long as humans have been looking at the sky and wondering what it all means. Early civilizations, for example, Harappans, Mayans, and ancient Chinese used astronomy to keep track of time, orient their cities, and to try to predict the future. Early astronomy was a mix of careful observation of the positions and motions of the heavenly bodies, religion, and astrology.

The Greeks named the stars and plotted their positions. While Europe muddled through the Dark Ages, astronomers in the Middle East translated Greek texts into Arabic, preserving and expanding humanity's knowledge of the sky.

The real renaissance of astronomy began with Nicholaus Copernicus, who advanced the idea that the Sun is in the center of the Solar System. Armed with the excellent naked-eye observations of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler formulated his Three Laws of Planetary Motion, which, for the first time, correctly described the way the planets move through the Solar System. Galileo Galilei was the first person to use a telescope to look at celestial bodies (though he did not invent the telescope) and discovered the four brightest moons of Jupiter, proving that there are things in the Solar System that don't revolve around the Sun.

Since Galileo's time, astronomy has made great strides, but, surprisingly, as late as the 1920's, astronomers were still debating about whether other galaxies were simply nearby nebulae, or if they were faraway "island universes," made up of billions of stars. The first planets outside our Solar System were not discovered until 1991, and we did not find any planets around normal stars until 1995.

Who knows what discoveries the future will bring!

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