Kepler’s Physical Astronomy

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Instead, he assigned Kepler to solve the mystery of Mars, one of the most puzzling problems in astronomy at the time. Ironically, the detailed records of the challenging planet were the tools Kepler needed to understand how the solar system functioned. When Brahe died in , Kepler managed to acquire Brahe's observations before his family could use them to their financial benefit.

Kepler's physical astronomy / Bruce Stephenson | National Library of Australia

In , scientists opened up Brahe's grave and claimed to find mercury in his remains. Kepler was posthumously accused of poisoning his benefactor in order to get hold of his closely guarded notes. But when Brahe's body was exhumed again in , tests revealed that the mercury content in his body was not high enough to kill him. The Martian problem, which Kepler said he would solve in eight days, took nearly eight years. Astronomers had long struggled to figure out why Mars appeared periodically to walk backward across the night sky.

No model of the solar system — not even Copernicus' — could account for the retrograde motion.

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Using Brahe's detailed observations, Kepler realized that the planets traveled in "stretched out" circles known as ellipses. The sun didn't sit exactly at the center of their orbit, but instead lay off to the side, at one of the two points known as the foci. Some planets, such as Earth, had an orbit that was very close to a circle, but the orbit of Mars was one of the most eccentric, or widely stretched.

The fact that planets travel on elliptical paths is known as Kepler's First Law.

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Mars appeared to move backward when Earth, on an inner orbit, came from behind the red planet, then caught up and passed it. Copernicus had suggested that observations made from a moving Earth rather than a centrally located one could be a cause of the retrograde motion, but the perfect circular orbits he posited still required epicycles to account for the paths of the planets.

Kepler realized that two planets, traveling on ellipses, would create the appearance of the red planet's backward motion in the night sky. Kepler also struggled with changes in the velocities of the planets. Safe Driving Tips.

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