The Horsehead Nebula has a coincidental appearance as the profile of a horse's head and neck that has led to its becoming one of the most familiar astronomical objects. It is an extremely dense cloud projecting in front of the ionized gas that provides the pink glow.
Astronomy has been in the news repeatedly in recent years, with images of deep space dating back to the earliest universe and the discovery of extra-solar planets.
What is the most important recent discovery in astronomy?
Astronomy, the oldest of sciences, is an investigation of the universe. But it is much more than that.
Since ancient times, astronomy has contributed significantly to human progress. Our calendar and system of time keeping came from astronomy. Much of mathematics, including trigonometry and calculus, arose from astronomical calculations. Navigational tools developed from astronomy permitted early explorers to pilot sailing ships and now spacecraft across the solar system. Many of the first electronic computers were built in order to tackle computational problems arising from astronomy. Communication satellites, offering services from cellular telephones to cable television, are applications of the laws of motion and gravity. Even medicine has been impacted with the introduction of imaging systems developed by astronomers that permit the non-invasive examination of internal organs.Yet, for all the practical applications derived from astronomical research, astronomy satisfies a more fundamental human need than these historical examples suggest.
Astronomy strives to answer the most basic questions that each of us first asked as children:
"How did the universe begin, if in fact it ever began?"
"How did formless matter coalesce into stars, planets, galaxies, and larger structures?"
"What will be the ultimate fate of the universe?"
At a young age, everyone inquired why there is day and night, and what causes the seasons. Astronomy provided the explanations, that the daily cycle was a result of the Earth's rotational spin and that a 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis causes seasonal changes.
Today's researchers are investigating the rate of the universe's expansion and properties of black holes in order to attain knowledge and achieve understanding, activities that are uniquely human.
We, creatures whose very bodies are composed of atoms forged inside stellar furnaces, have throughout our history gazed at the starry night when asking life's momentous questions.
Astronomers, using telescopes such as those at Kitt Peak National
Observatory are looking for the answers.
NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc. under cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The Kitt Peak Virtual Tour is developed and maintained by the NOAO Educational Outreach Office.
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