I wonder, how did our ancestors discover the Solar System? They did not have any telescopes to see distant objects, right? Even a planet looks like a star from a distance.

They discovered the rotations of different planets without having much technology.

  • $\begingroup$ abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/ast121/lectures/lec02.html $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 7:46
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Planets are bright and move in the sky vs the fixed stars over a period of months. That stands out like a sore thumb if you're not surrounded by Mercury vapor, High pressure Sodium, and LED streetlamps. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ As WayfaringStranger suggests, stars and planets look the same only on a cursory glance. Any truly curious ancient taking the trouble to look at the sky for even hours, let alone days, would see the planets behaving differently. That's why they're named differently, from the Greek for 'wanderer' as a deliberate distinction from the many much older variants of 'star' so clearly meaning 'twinkly thing in the sky' that most etymologies don't bother to say that. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2022 at 19:42

3 Answers 3


1. Ancient cultures observed the sky

Night skies are naturally dark and there was no light-pollution in ancient times. So if weather permits, you can easily see a lot of stars. No need to tell about the Sun and the Moon.

Ancient people had good reasons to study the night skies. In many cultures and civilizations, stars (and also the Sun and the Moon) where perceived to have religious, legendary, premonitory or magical significance (astrology), so a lot of people were interested in them. It did not took long to someone (in reality a lot of different people independently in many parts of the world) to see some useful patterns in the stars that would be useful to navigation, localization, counting hours, counting days and relating days to seasons, etc. And of course, those patterns in the stars were also related to the Sun and the Moon.

So, surely all ancient cultures had people who dedicated many nights of their lifes to study the stars in detail right from the stone age. They would also perceive meteorites (falling stars) and eclipses. And sometimes a very rare and spetacular comet.

Then there are the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. They are quite easily to notice to be distinct from the stars because all the stars seems to be fixed in the celestial sphere, but the planets don't. They are very easily to notice to be wandering around in the sky with the passage of the days, specially for Venus, which is the brightest "star" in the sky and is also a formidable wanderer. Given all of that, the ancient people surely become very aware of those five planets.

About Mercury, initially the Greeks thought that Mercury were two bodies, one that showed up only in the morning a few hours before the sunrise and another only a few hours after the sunset. However, soon they figured out that in fact it was only one body, because either one or the other (or neither) could be seen in a given day and the computed position of the unseen body always matched the position of the seen body.

2. The Earth seems to be round

Now, out of the stone age, already into ancient times, navigators and merchants who travelled great distances perceived that the Sun rising and setting points could variate not only due to the seasonal variation, but also accordingly to the location. Also, the distance from the polar star to the horizon line also variates accordingly with the location. This fact denounces the existence of the concept nowadays known as latitude, and this was perceived by ancient astronomers in places like Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and China.

Astronomers and people who dependend on astronomy (like navigators) would wonder why the distance from the polar star to the horizon varied, and one possibility was that it is because the Earth would be round. Also, registering different Sun angles in different locations of the world on a given same day and at a given same hour, also gives a hint that the Earth is round. The shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse also gives a hint that the Earth is round. However, this by itself is not a proof that the Earth is round, so most people would bet on some other simpler thing, or simply don't care about this phenomenon.

Most cultures in ancient times presumed that the world was flat. However the idea of the world being round exists since the ancient Greece. Contrary to the popular modern misconception, in the Middle Ages, almost no educated person on the western world thought that the world was flat.

About the Earth's size, by observing different Sun positions and shadows angles in different parts of the world, Erasthotenes in ancient Greece calculated the size of Earth and the distance between the Earth and the Sun correctly for the first time as back as the third century B.C. However, due to the confusion about all the different and inconsistent unit measures existent back then and the difficulty to precisely estimate long land and sea distances, confusion and imprecision persisted until the modern times.

Ancient cultures also figured out that the shiny part of the Moon was illuminated by the Sun. Since the Full Moon is easily seen even at midnight, this implies that the Earth is not infinite. The fact that the Moon enters in a rounded shadow when exactly in the opposite side of the sky as the Sun also implies that it is the Earth's shadow on the Moon. This also implies that Earth is significantly larger than Moon.

3. Geocentrism

So, people observed the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the fixed sphere of stars all revolving around the sky. They naturally thought that the Earth would be the center of the universe and that all of those bodies revolved around the Earth. This culminated with the work of the phylosopher Claudius Ptolemaeus about geocentrism.

Altough we now know that the ptolomaic geocentric model is fundamentally wrong, it could be used to compute the position of the planets, the Sun, the Moon and the celestial sphere of stars, with a somewhat acceptable precision at the time. It accounted to include the observation of planets velocity variations, retrograde motions and also for coupling Mercury and Venus to the Sun, so they would never go very far from it. Further, based on the velocity of the motion of those bodies in the sky, then the universe should be something like:

  • Earth at the center.
  • Moon orbiting the Earth.
  • Mercury orbiting the Earth farther than the Moon.
  • Venus orbiting the Earth farther than Mercury.
  • Sun orbiting the Earth farther than Venus.
  • Mars orbiting the Earth farther than Sun.
  • Jupiter orbiting the Earth farther than Mars.
  • Saturn orbiting the Earth farther than Jupiter.
  • The celestial sphere of stars rotating around the Earth, being the outermost sphere.

In fact, the ptolomaic model is a very complicated model, way more complicated than the copernic, keplerian and newtonian models. Particularly, this could be compared to softwares that are based on severely flawed concepts but that are still working due to a lot of complex, tangled and unexplainable hacks and kludges that are there just for the sake of making the thing work.

4. The discovery of the Americas

Marco Polo, in the last years of the 1200's, was the first European to travel to China and back and leave a detailed chronicle of his experience. So, he could bring a lot of knowledge about what existed in the central Asia, the East of Asia, the Indies, China, Mongolia and even Japan to the Europeans. Before Marco Polo, very few was known to the Europeans about what existed there. This greatly inspired European cartographers, philosophers, politicians and navigators in the years to come.

Portugal and Spain fough a centuries-long war against the invading Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors were finally expelled in 1492. The two states, were looking for something profitable after so many years of war. Since Portugal ended its part of the war first, it had a head start and went to explore the seas first. Both Portugal and Spain were trying to find a navigation route to reach the Indias and the China in order to trade highly profitable spices and silk. Those couldn't be traded by land efficiently anymore due to the fact that the lands on West Asia and North Africa were dominated by Muslim cultures unfriendly to Christian Europeans, a situation that were just made worse after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Portugal, were colonizing the Atlantic borders of Africa and eventually they managed to reach the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 (with Bartolomeu Dias).

A Genovese navigator called Cristoforo Colombo believed that if he sailed west from the Europe, he could eventually reach the Indies from the east side. Inspired by Marco Polo and subestimating the size of Earth, he estimated that the distance between the Canary Islands and the Japan to be 3700 km (in fact it is 12500 km). Most navigators would not venture in such voyage because they (rightly) tought that Earth was larger than that.

Colombo tried to convice the king of Portugal to finance his journey in 1485, but after submitting the proposal to experts, the king rejected it because the estimated journey distance was too low. Spain, however, after finally expelling the Moors in 1492, were convinced by him. Colombo's idea was far-fetched, but, after centuries of wars with the Muslims, if that worked, then Spain could profit quickly. So, the Spanish king approved the idea. And just a few months after expelling the Moors, Spain sent Colombo to sail west towards the Atlantic and then he reach the Hispaniola island in Central America. After coming back, the news about the discovery of lands in the other side of the Atlantic spread quickly.

Portugal and Spain then divided the world by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. In 1497, Amerigo Vespucci reached the mainland America.

Portugal would not be left behind, they managed to navigate around Africa to reach the Indies in 1498 (with Vasco da Gama). And they sent Pedro Álvares Cabral, who reached the Brazil in 1500 before crossing the Atlantic back in order to go for the Indies.

After that, Portugal and Spain quickly started to explore the Americas and eventually colonize them. France, England and Netherlands also came to the Americas some time later.

5. The Earth IS round

After, the Spanish discovered and settled into the Americas (and Colombo's plan in fact didn't worked). The question that if it was possible to sail around the globe to reach the Indies from the east side remained open and the Spanish were still interested on it. They eventually discovered the Pacific Ocean after crossing the Panama Ishtums by land in 1513.

Eager to find a maritime route around the globe, the Spanish crown funded an expedition leadered by the Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães (or Magellan as his name was translated to English) to try to circle the globe. Magellan was an experienced navigator, and had reached what is present day Malaysia traveling through the Indian Ocean before. They departed from Spain in September 20th, 1519. It was a long and though journey that costed the lives of most of the crew. Magellan himself did not survived, having died in a battle in the Phillipines on 1521. At least, he lived enough to be aware that they in fact reached East Asia by traveling around the globe to the west, which also proves that the Earth is round.

The journey was eventually completed by the leadership of Juan Sebatián Elcano, one of the crewmen of Magellan. They reached Spain back through the Indian and Atlantic Oceans on September 6th, 1522 after traveling for almost three years a distance of 81449 km.

6. Heliocentrism

There were some heliocentric or hybrid geo-heliocentric theories in ancient times. Notably by the Greek philosopher Philolaus in the 5th century BC. By Martianus Capella around the years 410 to 420. And by Aristarchus of Samos around 370 BC. Those models tried to explain the motion of the stars as rotation of the Earth and the position of the planets, specially Mercury and Venus as translation around the Sun. However those early models were too imprecise and flawed to work appropriately, and the ptolomaic model still was the model with the better prediction of the positions of the heavenly bodies.

The idea that the Earth rotates was much less revolutionary than heliocentrism, but was already more-or-less accepted with reluctancy in the middle ages. This happens because if the stars rotated around Earth, they would need do so at an astonishing velocity, dragging the Sun, the Moon and the planets with it, so it would be easier if Earth itself rotated. People were uncomfortable with this idea, but they still accepted it, and this became easier to be accepted after the Earth sphericity was an established concept.

In the first years of the 1500's, while the Portuguese and Spanish were sailing around the globe, a polish and very skilled matemathical and astronomer called Nikolaus Kopernikus took some years thinking about the mechanics of the heavenly bodies. After some years making calculations and observations, he created a model of circular orbits of the planets around the Sun and perceived that his model were much more simpler than the ptolomaic geocentric model and was at least as precise. His model also features a rotating Earth and fixed stars. Further, his model implied that the Sun was much larger than the Earth, something that was already strongly suspected at the time due to calculations and measurements and also implied that Jupiter and Saturn were several times larger than Earth, so Earth would definitively be a planet just like the other five then-known planets were. This could be seen as the borning of the model today know as Solar System.

Fearing persecution and harsh criticism, he avoided to publish many of his works, sending manuscripts to only his closest acquaintances, however his works eventually leaked out and he was convinced to allow its full publication anyway. Legend says that he was presented to his finally fully published work in the very day that he died in 1543, so he could die in peace.

There was a heated debate between supporters and oppositors of Copernic's heliocentric theory in the middle 1500's. One argument for the opposition was that star parallaxes could not be observed, which implied that either the heliocentric model was wrong or that the stars were very very far and many of them would be even larger than the Sun, which seemed to be a crazy idea at the time.

Tycho Brache, which did not accepted heliocentrism, in the latest years of the 1500's tried to save geocentrism with an hybrid geo-heliocentric model that featured the five heavenly planets orbiting the Sun while the Sun and the Moon orbited Earth. However, he also published a theory which better predicted the position of the Moon. Also, by this time, the observation of some supernovas showed that the celestial sphere of the stars were not exactly immutable.

In 1600, the astronomer William Gilbert provided strong argument for the rotation of Earth, by studing magnets and compasses, he could demonstrate that the Earth was magnetic, which could be explained by the presence of enourmous quantities of iron in its core.

7. With telescopes

All of what I wrote above happened without telescopes, only by using naked eye observations and measurements around the globe. Now, add even some small telescopes and things change quickly.

The earliest telescopes were invented in 1608. In 1609, the astronomer Galieu Galilei heard about that, and constructed his own telescope. In January of 1610, Galieu Galilei, using a small telescope, observed four small bodies orbiting Jupiter at different distances, figuring out that they were Jupiter's "moons", he also could predict and calculate its positions along their orbits. Some months later, he also observed that Venus had phases as seen from the Earth. He also observed Saturn's rings, but his telescope was not powerful enough to resolve them as rings, and he tought that they were two moons. These observations were incompatible with the geocentric model.

A contemporary of Galilei, Johannes Kepler, working on Copernicus' heliocentric model and making a lot of calculations, in order to explain the differing orbital velocities, created an heliocentric model where the planets orbits the Sun in elliptic orbits with one of the ellipse's focus in the Sun. His works were published in 1609 and 1619. He also suggested that tides were caused by the motion of the Moon, though Galilei was skeptical to that. His laws predicted a transit of Mercury in 1631 and of Venus in 1639, and such transit were in fact observed. However, a predicted transit of Venus in 1631 could not be seen due to imprecision in calculations and the fact that it was not visible in much of the Europe.

In 1650 the first double star were observed. Further in the 1600's, the Saturn rings were resolved by the use of better telescopes by Robert Hooke, who also observed a double star in 1664 and developed microscopes to observe cellular structures. From them on, many stars were discovered to be double. In 1655, Titan were discovered orbiting Saturn, putting more confidence on the heliocentric model. More four Saturnian moons were discovered between 1671 and 1684.

8. Gravitation

Heliocentrism was reasonably well-accepted in the middle 1600's, but people was not confortable with it. Why the planets orbits the Sun afterall? Why the Moon orbits Earth? Why Jupiter and Saturn had moons? Although Keplerian mechanics could predict their moviment, it was still unclear what was the reason that makes them move that way.

In 1687, Isaac Newton who was one of the most brilliant physic and mathematic that ever lived (although he was also an implacable persecutor of his opponents), provided the gravitational theory (based on prior work by Robert Hooke). Ideas for the gravitation theory and the inverse square law already were developed in the 1670's, but he could publish a very simple and clear theory for gravitation, very well-fundamented in physics and mathematics and it explained the motions of the celestial bodies with a great precision, including comets. It also explained why the planets, the Moon and the Sun are spherical, explained tides and it also served to explain why things falls to the ground. This made heliocentrism to be definitely widely accepted.

Also, Newton gravitational law predicted that Earth rotation would make it not exactly spherical, but a bit ellipsoidal by a factor of 1:230. Something that agreed with measures done using pendulums in 1673.

9. What are the stars and the Solar System afterall?

In the early 1700's, Edmund Halley, already knowing about newtonian laws (he was a contemporary of Newton) perceived that comets who passed near Earth would eventually return, and he found that there was a particular instance of sightings every 76 years, so he could note that those comets in reality were all the same comet, which is called after him.

The only remaining problem with the heliocentric model was the lack of observation of parallax to the stars. And nobody knew for sure what the stars were. However, if they in fact are very distant bodies, most of them would be much larger than the Sun. At the first half of the 1700's, trying to observe parallax, James Bradley perceived phenomena like the aberration of light and the Earth's nutation, and those phenomena also provides a way to calculate the speed of light. But the observation of parallax remained a challenge during the 1700's.

In 1781, Uranus were discovered orbiting the Sun beyond Saturn. Although barely visible to the naked eye in the darkest skies, it was so dim that it escaped observation from astronomers until then, and so were discovered with a telescope. The first asteroids were also discovered in the early 1800's. Investigation on pertubations on Uranus' orbit due to the predicted newtonian and keplerian movement eventually leaded to the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

In 1838, the astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel who measured the position of more than 50000 stars with the greatest precision as possible, could finally measure the parallax of the star 61 Cygni successfully, which proved that stars were in fact very distant bodies and that many of them were in fact larger than the Sun. This also demonstrates that the Sun is a star. Vega and Alpha Centauri also had their parallaxes measured successfully in 1838. Further, those measurements permitted to estimate the distance between those stars and the Solar System to be on the order of many trillions of kilometers, or several light-years.

  • $\begingroup$ Good research, but I don't understand why Sections 2, 5, and 8 are relevant, and I'm puzzled by the detour to Section 4. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 18:54
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Sections 2, and 5 is about the Earth being round, which is important to heliocentrism. 4 is to prepare the historic context to explain why 5 happened. 8 is to show how/why heliocentric theories became widely accepted. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 19:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why is the Earth being round central to heliocentrism? Besides, it was known that the Earth was round long before the discovery of the New World. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 19:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 To show that Earth was a planet just like the heavenly ones, and not something different. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ That makes sense. Still, people knew the Earth was round a long time before the voyages to the New World. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 19:31

In the absence of the lighting levels in cities, there are a number of objects in the night sky that are easily seen to move against the background of stars: the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Mercury. These are obvious to anyone who looks at the sky regularly from any dark sky site on clear nights, like most places in the pre-industrial world. These objects are the Planets or Wanderers.

The term Solar System is anachronistic when used of ancient astronomy. You have the Fixed Stars which maintain their relative positions but appear to rotate as if fixed to a sphere centred on the observer about a celestial axis about once per day. then you have the Planets which move relative to the Fixed Stars. Together with the Earth itself these constitute the World, Universe or what-have-you.


By very carefully tracking the movements of the planets across the sky. And then coming up with the counterintuitive idea that they move just like apples move as they fall from trees.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .