Monday, February 28, 2011

Do Stars Move?

The ancients believed that the stars were embedded in a distant spherical bowl and moved in unison, never changing their relative positions. We know now, of course, that the daily motion of the stars is due to the earth’s rotation. Yet the stars move, too; however, their great distance from us makes that movement difficult to perceive, except over long periods of time. A jet high in the sky, for example, can appear to be moving rather slowly, yet we know that it has to be moving fast just to stay aloft and its apparent slowness is a result of its distance. Astronomers think of stellar movement in three dimensions:
  • The transverse component of motion is perpendicular to our line of sight—that is, movement
  • across the sky. This motion can be measured directly.
  • The radial component is stellar movement toward or away from us. This motion must be measured from a star’s spectrum.
  • The actual motion of a star is calculated by combining the transverse and radial components.
The transverse component can be measured by carefully comparing photographs of a given piece of the sky taken at different times and measuring the angle of displacement of one star relative to background stars (in arcseconds).
This stellar movement is called proper motion. A star’s distance can be used to translate the angular proper motion thus measured into a transverse velocity in km/s. In our analogy: If you knew how far away that airplane in the sky was, you could turn its apparently slow movement into a true velocity.
Determining the radial component of a star’s motion involves an entirely different process. By studying the spectrum of the target star (which shows the light emitted and absorbed by a star at particular frequencies), astronomers can calculate the star’s approaching or receding velocity. Certain elements and molecules show up in a star’s spectrum as absorption lines (see Chapter 7). The frequencies of particular absorption lines are known if the source is at rest, but if the star is moving toward or away from us, the lines will get shifted. A fast-moving star will have its lines shifted more than a slow-moving one. This phenomenon, more familiar with sound waves, is known as the Doppler effect.
How fast do stars move? And what is the fixed background against which the movement can be measured? For a car, it’s easy enough to say that it’s moving at 45 miles per hour relative to the road. But there are no freeways in space. Stellar speeds can be given relative to the earth, relative to the sun, or relative to the center of the Milky Way. Astronomers always have to specify which reference frame they are using when they give a velocity. Stars in our neighborhood typically move at tens of kilometers per second relative to the sun.

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