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Review of Chinese ancient exploration in astronomy

09-28-2011 14:09 BJT Special Report: Tiangong I - China's first space rendezvous and docking task |

China's fascination with outer space dates back thousands of years. And as ancient astronomers sought ways to explore the vast universe, they invented instruments to help them understand what is beyond reach. Now, let's take a look at some of the benchmarks in the history of Chinese ancient astronomy.

Amidst the modern buildings and dense traffic, quietly stands this centuries-old building. This is the Beijing Ancient Observatory. Built nearly 570 years ago, it's one of the oldest in the world and home to some of mankind's oldest astronomical instruments.

Another astrological invention around 1800 years ago was the water-powered Armillary Sphere. During the Eastern Han Dynasty, astronomer Zhang Heng created the device. Since then, the device had been improved by later astronomers.

Xiao Jun, Deputy Director of Beijing Ancient Obserbatory said "The model we see is a replica of a Ming Dynasty version. It is constructed of two bronze disks and was used to measure the coordinates of celestial bodies. It was a reflection of people's common understanding about the sky at that time, that the sky was round and the earth was square."

But that interpretation was soon met with controversy. Zhang Heng not only documented about 2500 stars, but also invented a cosmological theory--the eggshell theory.

"He said the sky is an egg, and the earth is like the yolk lying at the center. It was an interesting description of the orbit of planets. Compared with astronomers in other countries at that time, the theory was quite advanced."

Several centuries after Zhang Heng, a scientist named Zu Chongzhi improved the calculation of the movement of the Earth’s axis on a large circle in relation to the star field.

Some 700 years ago, during the Yuan Dynasty, astronomer Guo Shoujing redesinged many of the astrological instruments to increase accuracy. But his greatest contribution may be the calendar year.

Xiao Jun said "At that time, the Chinese calculated the Year to precisely 365.2425 days,
which is very close to what we use today. For thousands of years, our ancestors never stopped studying the sun or gazing at the moon and stars. Through the ancient experiences, we may get a glimpse of today’s exploration into space supported by modern technologies."

Some of these instruments have stood there for hundreds of years, a witness to the persistence of the ancient Chinese astronomers in observing celestial phenomena. The calculation or theories invented by them may not have been accurate, but they served as a foundation for future development by thoese who followed. Looking into the Chinese history, you can also find the invention of kites, telescope, the first records of rockets used as
weapons and the eclipse of the sun. In China, we're proud to say astronomy truly is a both ancient and modern science.

Editor:James |Source: CNTV

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