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Astronomical distances

SI System of measurement

All units are expressed in terms of metres,

Kilograms and seconds
The size of these units can often be much larger
or smaller than is convenient to work with.

Prefixes (milli-, nano-, Mega- etc) can be added to

change the size usually by x103
Alternatively they can be written using scientific
notation eg 1.5 x 10-9

It is always correct to give a measurement using

SI units.

Astronomical Unit

The average
distance from the
Earth to the Sun.
149,597,870 km
Used to measure
distances within the
solar system

1 s e c o n d o f a rc

1 p a rs e c

Unit for expressing

distances to stars and
Used by professional
It represents the distance
at which the radius of the
earth's orbit subtends an
angle of one second of arc
1pc = 3.26 light-years
= 3.09 1013 km

1 A U

relative limits to trigonometric parallax distance

determinations using recent ground-based and
space-based telescopes

Ground based
Baseline has a maximum of 2 AU
Limit of angular measurement
depends on the size of the circle
used to measure angular shift
Resolution / seeing limits the
confidence in the measurement
very small parallax angles

Space based
Baseline > 2 AU this increases
size of parallax angle and allows
us to detect parallax shift at
distances greater than ~ 40 pc in
the ratio of the max baselines
Smaller circles of reference
reduce accuracy as to the
direction the telescope is pointing
Resolution & seeing are much
better as there is no atmosphere
smaller parallax can be measured
with confidence.


The distance that light travels in 1 year

The speed of light (in a vacuum) is
3 x 108 ms-1
A light-second = 300,000 km
A light-year = about 9.46053 10 12 km
1 AU 8 light-minutes
1 pc = 3.262 l.y.

Distances to stars

The closest star (other than the sun) to

Earth is about 4 l.y. away (Alpha
Centauri [a.k.a. Rigel Kentaurus]
Distances to about 50 pc can be
measured using astronomical parallax
The distance to other stars can be
estimated by comparing their actual
brightness to their apparent brightness

Astronomy - TERMS


A group of stars, [as

seen from Earth] that
seem to form a pattern [
or picture ? ] in the sky.


A group of 12
constellations that lie on
the ecliptic.



The part of the sky that

the sun, moon and
planets move through.


Someone who studies

The direction of a object
measured as an angel
clockwise from North.


The height of an object

measured as an angle
above the horizon.
directly up (90o is called

The movement of the stars

Stars are so far away from us that we

can not see any movement of one star
relative to another.
We can observe, however, apparent
motion of the stars , due to the daily
rotation of the earth about its axis and
its yearly orbit about the sun.

The movement of the stars

Stars rise in the EAST & set in the WEST.

Stars rotate clockwise about the South
celestial Pole
A star ( near the celestial equator ) will
move through 15o of sky every hour.
The same star will change its position, at
the same time each night, by 1o per day.


Azimuth is the direction of

a star given as a compass









The star s azimuth is 80o



This is the angle

that the star appears
above the horizon.
A point is the sky
with an elevation of
90o is called the
The star in this
diagram has an
elevation of 60o


Right Ascension & Declination

Because the stars are so far away, they

seem to be fixed on a celestial sphere.
The equator of this sphere is divided up
into 24 divisions or hours (Rt Ascension)

These act like longitude

The latitude lines are angles above or

below the equator. These are measured in
degrees. (Declination)

Right Ascension & Declination

The main advantage of this system over

azimuth & elevation is that it is not
dependant on the observers location &
The disadvantage is that the user has to
be able to recognise the celestial equator.


We can take photographs

of stars using a time
The camera should be
mounted on a tripod (or
You should be away from
all lights with no moon.

use a medium aperture

( eg f5.6 ) . and leave the
shutter open for a long
time eg 20 minutes.
If you are using a colour
film then set the focus on
10 m .
The star trails will seem
to form circles about the
south celestial pole. (c/f
colour plate fig 2.6 )


Select a star or a constellation and measure its

azimuth & elevation at the same time every night for
a month. Record your data in a table.
Record the positions of the star / constellation on a
skychart at the start and the end of the month.
Identify the following constellations:

Crux (southern cross) and Pointers, Scorpio , (These next

two in the summer months.) Orion and Gemini

Identify the following constellations

Alpha & Beta Centauri, Sirius, Rigel, Betelgeuse, and