Some of the planets have been recognized to people for as long as they have been observing the stars. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn can all be seen with the bare eyes, so it’s impossible to say who was the first human to discover them, and when that was but we know who saw them first time from telescope!
Uranus- William Hershel
on March 13, 1781. He was searching the sky with his telescope and realized that Uranus was moving with respect to the stars. Other people had seen Uranus before even marked it on their star charts–but they didn’t realize that it wasn’t a star.
Neptune- Johann Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest
Based on small perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, John Adams and Urbain Le Verrier predicted the position of another, more distant planet. Though John Adam’s prediction was first, by about a month, the observers Johann Galle and Heinrich Louis d’Arrest used LaVerrier’s position, and were the first people to observe the planet Neptune and know what they were looking at on September 18, 1846. Again, many people had seen Neptune before, including, surprisingly, Galileo Galilei, who noted a “star” in the field during his observations of Jupiter, which we now believe was actually Neptune.
Pluto- Clyde Tombaugh
On February 18, 1930. He found it in a location predicted by apparent perturbations in the orbit of Neptune. However, we now know that Pluto is too small to cause a measurable change in Neptune’s orbit and that the “perturbations” were actually just errors in the measurement of the positions of the planets, so Tombaugh was just lucky.
Mercury- Not Known
Mercury or quicksilver has been known since ancient times. We do not know who discovered it. Mercury was known to the ancient Chinese, Egyptians and Hindus and has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to about 1500 B.C.
Venus- Galileo Galilei
In 1610, the first person to point a telescope at Venus was Galileo Galilei. Even with his crude telescope, Galileo realized that Venus goes through phases like the Moon. These observations helped support the Copernican view that the planets orbited the Sun, and not the Earth as previously believed. Venus has an atmosphere and helped calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun with great accuracy.
Mars – Not Known
The recorded history of observation of the planet Mars dates back to the era of the ancient Egyptian astronomers in the 2nd millennium BCE. Chinese records about the motions of Mars appeared before the founding of the Zhou Dynasty (1045 BCE). The first telescopic observation of Mars was by Galileo Galilei in 1610.
Jupiter- Not Known
Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Fittingly, it was named after the king of the gods in Roman mythology. In a similar manner, the ancient Greeks named the planet after Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon. Jupiter is the most massive planet in our solar system, more than twice as massive as all the other planets combined, and had it been about 80 times more massive, it would have actually become a star instead of a planet.
Saturn- Not Known
Saturn has been known since prehistoric times because it is easily visible to the naked eye. Not until the invention of the telescope, however, did people observe Saturn’s magnificent rings.
Galileo Galilei was the first to observe Saturn with a telescope in 1610. Because of the crudeness of his telescope, he couldn’t determine what the rings were. He incorrectly guessed that there were two large moons on either side of Saturn. Two years later when he viewed Saturn again, the “moons” had disappeared. We know now this is because Galileo was viewing the rings edge-on so that they were invisible, but at the time it was very confusing to Galileo. After another two years, Galileo viewed Saturn again and found that the “moons” had returned. He concluded that the rings were “arms” of some sort.
However, most of the planets were first discovered via a telescope by Galileo Galilei.
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