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The ancient Greek philosophers developed several theories about the force that caused objects to fall toward the earth. In the 4th century bc, the Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that all things were made from some combination of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Objects that were similar in nature attracted one another, and as a result, objects with more earth in them were attracted to the earth. Fire, by contrast, was dissimilar and therefore tended to rise from the earth. Aristotle also developed a cosmology, that is, a theory describing the universe, that was geocentric, or earth-centered, with the moon, sun, planets, and stars moving around the earth on spheres. The Greek philosophers, however, did not propose a connection between the force behind planetary motion and the force that made objects fall toward the earth.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo discovered that all objects fall toward the earth with the same acceleration, regardless of their weight, size, or shape, when gravity is the only force acting on them. Galileo also had a theory about the universe, which he based on the ideas of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In the mid-16th century, Copernicus had proposed a heliocentric, or sun-centered system, in which the planets moved in circles around the sun, and Galileo agreed with this cosmology. However, Galileo believed that the planets moved in circles because this motion was the natural path of a body with no forces acting on it. Like the Greek philosophers, he saw no connection between the force behind planetary motion and gravitation on earth.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the heliocentric model of the universe gained support from observations by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, and his student, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. These observations, made without telescopes, were accurate enough to determine that the planets did not move in circles, as Copernicus had suggested. Kepler calculated that the orbits had to be ellipses (slightly elongated circles). The invention of the telescope made even more precise observations possible, and Galileo was one of the first to use a telescope to study astronomy. In 1609 Galileo observed that moons orbited the planet Jupiter, a fact that could not reasonably fit into an earth-centered model of the heavens.

The new heliocentric theory changed scientists' views about the earth's place in the universe and opened the way for new ideas about the forces behind planetary motion. However, it was not until the late 17th century that Isaac Newton developed a theory of gravitation that encompassed both the attraction of objects on the earth and planetary motion.