Stellar parallax


In astronomy, parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object seen by observers in different places. Stellar parallax is used to measure the distance of stars using the motion of the Earth in its orbit. Created by the different orbital positions of Earth, the extremely small observed shift is largest at time intervals of about six months, when Earth arrives at exactly opposite sides of the Sun in its orbit, giving a baseline distance of about two astronomical units between observations. The parallax itself is considered to be half of this maximum, about equivalent to the observational shift that would occur due to the different positions of Earth and the Sun, a baseline of one astronomical unit (AU).


Stellar parallax is so difficult to detect that its existence was the subject of much debate in astronomy for thousands of years. It was first observed by Giuseppe Calandrelli who reported parallax in α-Lyrae in his work “Osservazione e riflessione sulla parallasse annua dall’alfa della Lira”. Then in 1838 Friedrich Bessel made the first successful parallax measurement ever, for the star 61 Cygni, using a Fraunhofer heliometer at Königsberg Observatory. 


Once a star’s parallax is known, its distance from Earth can be computed trigonometrically. But the more distant an object is, the smaller its parallax. Even with 21st-century techniques in astrometry, the limits of accurate measurement make distances farther away than about 100 parsecs (roughly 326 light years) too approximate to be useful when obtained by this technique. This limits the applicability of parallax as a measurement of distance to objects that are relatively close on a galactic scale. Other techniques, such as spectral red-shift, are required to measure the distance of more remote objects.