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Humans sitting at Blombos Cave

Gemini South Awakens
As twilight deepens atop Cerro Pachón in the Chilean Andes, the Gemini South Telescope peers through the three-story high vents of its open dome.
Credit: Gemini Observatory

Cover Page Credit: Gemini Observatory. Additional credits appear throughout the site.

Title: Overview
Astronomy may well be the oldest science of all. Human beings have been studying the sun, moon, planets and stars for at least 5,000 years--ever since the scholars of ancient Mesopotamia first began to record their observations in writing—and probably for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before that, ever since our remote ancestors first looked up with curiosity and wonder.

True, astronomy has changed a bit since then. Today's astronomers are focusing on phenomena our forbearers never imagined--planets orbiting other stars, for example; black holes the size of our solar system; galaxies being driven apart by invisible “dark energy”; ripples in the fabric of space and time; and of course the big bang, where time itself began.

Moreover, they are doing so not with their naked eyes, but with multimillion-dollar telescopes that are marvels of precision and high technology, not to mention being roughly the size of a ziggurat.

NSF alone operates a whole series of astronomical facilities, ranging from optical telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, and Chile, to radio telescopes in West Virginia, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and many other sites. The agency has also deployed some decidedly unconventional “telescopes” that watch for cosmic rays, gravity waves and invisible particles called neutrinos. And that’s not even counting the many observatories operated by private institutions and other nations, nor the space-going telescopes such as Hubble, which are operated by NASA.

And yet, despite everything that has changed over the millennia, the deepest and most fundamental questions remain:

  row bullet Where did it all come from?
  row bullet What is the universe made of, and how does it work?
  row bullet What is our place in the cosmos?
  row bullet Are we alone?