Thursday, May 5, 2022

Understanding Astronomy: AU, Light Year & Parsec Explained

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In our day-to-day lives, we commonly use measurements like metres, centimetres, and kilometres. However, these units are less practical in the field of astronomy, given the enormous distances and sizes involved. Consider, for instance, that the distance to Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to the Sun) is a whopping 4e18 metres - that's a 4 followed by 18 zeros! To handle these massive figures more conveniently, astronomers have introduced three new units: the astronomical unit (AU), the light year (ly), and the parsec (pc).

These units are chosen based on the context: the astronomical unit is utilized for Solar System distances, the light year or parsec for interstellar distances, and the megaparsec (Mpc, one million parsecs) for distances between galaxies.

The astronomical unit, defined as the mean Earth-Sun distance, is about 150 million kilometres. Hence, Earth is 1 AU from the Sun, Mars orbits at an average radius of 1.52 AU, and Neptune, the furthest planet in the Solar System, is 30 AU from the Sun.

Meanwhile, the light year, defined as the distance light travels in a vacuum (sans gravitational fields) in one year, equals 9 461 billion kilometres (over 63 thousand AU). This unit is often used in popular science due to its easy-to-understand definition.

Lastly, the parsec, primarily used in scientific contexts, is equivalent to 3.26 light years. The parsec's definition is based on the trigonometric parallax. To illustrate, consider Earth's orbit around the Sun and point P a certain distance from the Solar System. The parsec is defined as the distance of a star at point P that has an annual parallax of one arcsecond. In simpler terms, a star located 1 pc away sees the semi-major axis of Earth's orbit subtended at an angle of one arcsecond.

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