The Solar System

Heliocentric Model facts


Andreas Cellarius's illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

The Scientific Revolution, which took in the 16th and 17th centuries, was a time of unprecedented learning and discovery. During this period, the foundations of modern science were laid, thanks to breakthroughs in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. And when it comes to astronomy, the most influential scholar was definitely Nicolaus Copernicus, the man credited with the creation of the Heliocentric model of the universe.

Based on ongoing observations of the motions of the planets, as well as previous theories from classical antiquity and the Islamic World, Copernicus' proposed a model of the universe where the Earth, the planets and the stars all revolved around the sun. In so doing, he resolved the mathematical problems and inconsistencies arising out of the classic geocentric model and laid the foundations for modern astronomy.

While Copernicus was not the first to propose a model of the solar system in which the Earth and planets revolved around the sun, his model of a heliocentric universe was both novel and timely. For one, it came at a time when European astronomers were struggling to resolve the mathematical and observational problems that arose out of the then-accepted Ptolemaic model of the universe, a geocentric model proposed in the 2nd century CE.

In addition, Ptolemy's model was the first astronomical system that offered a complete and detailed account of how the universe worked. Not only did his model resolves issues arising out of the Ptolemaic system, it offered a simplified view of the universe that did away with complicated mathematical devices that were needed for the geocentric model to work. And with time, the model gained influential proponents who contributed to it becoming the accepted convention of astronomy.

What is the heliocentric model of the universe?The Ptolemaic (Geocentric) Model:

An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

The geocentric model, in which planet Earth is the center of the universe and is circled by the sun and all the planets, had been the accepted cosmological model since ancient times. By late antiquity, this model had come to be formalized by ancient Greek and Roman astronomers, such as Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) – who's theories on physics became the basis for the motion of the planets – and Ptolemy (ca. 100 – ca.?170 CE), who proposed the mathematical solutions.

The geocentric model essentially came down to two common observations. First of all, to ancient astronomers, the stars, the sun, and the planets appeared to revolve around the Earth on daily basis. Second, from the perspective of the Earth-bound observer, the Earth did not appear to move, making it a fixed point in space.

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