Monday, January 31, 2011

Nearest and Farthest

Other than the sun, the star closest to us is Alpha Centauri, which has the largest known stellar parallax of 0.76 arc seconds. In general, the distance to a star in parsecs (abbreviated pc) is equal to 1 divided by the stellar parallax in arcseconds—or conversely, its parallax will be equal to 1 divided by the distance in parsecs. The measured parallax, in any case, will be a very small angle (less than an arcsecond). Recall that the moon takes up about 1,800” on the sky when full, so the parallax measured for Alpha Centauri is about 1⁄2000 the diameter of the full moon! Using the rule above to convert parallax into distance, we find that Alpha Centauri is about 1.3 pc or 4.2 light-years away. On average, stars in our Galaxy are separated by 7 light-years. So Alpha Centauri is even closer than “normal.” If a star were 10 pc away, it would have a parallax of 1⁄10 or 0.1”.
The farthest stellar distances that can be measured using parallax are about 100 parsecs (333 light-years). Stars at this distance have a parallax of 1⁄100” or 0.01”. That apparent motion is the smallest that we can measure with our best telescopes. Within our own Galaxy, most stars are even farther away than this. As telescope resolutions improve with the addition of adaptive optics, this outer limit will be pushed farther out.

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