Since Galileo first gazed up at the night sky in 1610, astronomers have been observing and recording what they saw. Galileo’s drawings of our Moon, the planets, and stars were some of the first recordings of scientific observations, paving the way for modern science. The technological advancements made over the last centuries would blow those early astronomers away! Before the age of computers and film, early astronomers simply used pencil and paper to record the night sky. Looking back at these sketches and images gives us a glimpse and understanding into how far science, technology and discovery has come.
We’ve complied a comparison of some historical images of our Universe against more recent images, showcasing in beautiful detail the advancements and achievements humanity have made throughout the years.
In 1845 astronomer William Parsons used the largest telescope at the time to observe and study the galaxy known as M51, which we now call the Whirlpool Galaxy. His observations discovered the spiral pattern of the galaxy, and his drawings show impressive accuracy. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope revealed the Whirlpool Galaxy in stunning detail with this photo taken in 2005, 160 years after William Parsons drawings.
Left: William Parsons drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy made in 1845. Right: The Whirlpool Galaxy taken by Hubble in 2005.
The Red Planet, Mars
Mars is a planet that has fascinated humans since ancient times. Not much was known about the red planet from early Earth-observation because of its small size and sheer distance from us. NASA conducted the first successful interplanetary fly-by of Mars in 1965 with the Mariner 4 probe. It sent back the first grainy close-up images of its surface and revealed a dry, cratered world. Since then, Mars has become the most explored planet in our Solar System with over 50 missions being sent from Earth. Though many early missions were unsuccessful, today we can see Mars in near real time from the surface by rovers like Curiosity, and in stunning detail by the many orbiting spacecraft.
Left: The first ever close-up image of Mars seen from Mariner 4 in 1965. Right: The Curiosity snaps a selfie while exploring Gale Crater in 2012.
The Orion nebula has been extensively studied throughout the years as it is one of the closest and brightest star-forming regions to Earth. It can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night under favourable conditions. Astronomer Henry Drape made history in 1880 by taking the first known photo of the Orion Nebula, which also became the very first known instance of astrophotography. Today, the Orion nebula can be imaged easily by amateur astronomers with a simple DSLR camera and lens.
Left: Henry Drape’s 1880 image was ground breaking at the time. Right: This 2006 mosaic of Orion was taken by the Hubble telescope and is one of the most detailed astronomical images ever made.
The infamous dwarf planet Pluto had remained a mysterious world since its discovery in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. It was but a simple point of light in images until powerful telescopes like Hubble made further observations. Even with Hubble resolving power, it was not enough to resolve anything more than a few pixels across due to the sheer distance from Earth and its tiny size. In 2015, the New Horizons probe flew past Pluto, revealing the dwarf planet in stunning clarity.
Left: Even the powerful Hubble telescope could not make out many details on Pluto in this 1996 image. Right: Pluto’s surface detail was revealed for the first time in 2015, 85 years after its discovery.
The Milky Way
Our home galaxy has been described in countless cultures since humans first began to record the world around them. Astronomer William Herschel made a map of our galaxy in 1785 by simply counting the stars he could see, assuming our Solar System was at the centre. His drawings show a few hundred stars, but our advancements in science now tell us that our galaxy is made up of somewhere between 200-400 billion individual stars. Our Sun is just one of those stars, and recent calculations put the estimated number of known galaxies in the trillions.
Left: Williams 1785 drawing of the Milky Way accurately predicted that its shape was a disk, through it incorrectly assumed we were in the centre. Right: The European Space Agency complied this mosaic of our galaxy, which took over 120 hours of telescopic observation.
Jupiter and its Entourage
The largest planet in our Solar System, Jupiter, played a pivotal role in the history of astronomy. Galileo first observed Jupiter in 1610, noting of 4 ‘stars’ that appeared to be moving around the planet. It quickly became clear that these ‘stars’ were actually moons orbiting around the gas giant, and this meant that Earth was not the centre of the universe as once thought. Giovanni Cassini made the first detailed drawings of Jupiter in 1667, noting the raging red spot storm which still exists to this day. Jupiter has been visited by a plethora of spacecraft over the years, also unveiling the four large moons we know as Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
Above: Galilei observed Jupiter and 4 ‘stars’ orbiting the planet in these drawings from 1610. Below: Jupiter today with its four large moons almost resemble its own little Solar System. It has been visited by nine spacecraft.
The Big Blue Marble, Earth
Our home planet Earth had never been seen from an outsider’s perspective until the advances in rocket technology that allowed us to break free of Earths gravity. A year after the end of World War II, the United States launched a German made V2 rocket into space from New Mexico. It took the first ever image of Earth from space from an altitude of 105km. Since then, our extensive use of the thousands of satellites that have been launched into orbit above us allow us to see our home in detail like never before. They provide us with real time weather data, climate information, and other conveniences that we all use like Google Maps.
Left: The first image of Earth from space taken on 24th October 1946. Right: A beautiful portrait of our blue planet taken by the Japanese Himawari-8 satellite 2017.
Josh Kirkley, Astronomy Educator