By Efrosyni Boutsikas
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Extra resources for Astronomy and Ancient Greek Cult An application of archaeoastronomy to Greek religious architecture, cosmologies and landscapes. (PhD Leicester)
If the motion of any one star in the sky could be examined in detail, greatly magnified, each star would be seen to move in a straight line across the sky. The pattern of motions might appear rather chaotic, in the sense that even stars near to each other on the sky can be moving in very different directions, and at very different speeds. – 35 – Chapter 2 Measuring how the angular position of each star on the celestial sphere changes with time gives what astronomers call the star’s ‘proper motion’.
If we knew their intrinsic brightnesses we could infer their distances from their apparent magnitude12 , but this approach relies on a circular logic. Stars differ enormously in their innate characteristics like size, mass, and luminosity, and it is precisely these properties that astronomers want to pin down by measuring their distances. We can’t deduce the distance to a town on the far horizon by measuring the angular size of a prominent church spire, without knowing the height of that particular spire.
In terms of the Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun, each star has its own parallax angle—the ratio of the Earth– Sun distance to that of the star. If measured during this yearly motion, nearby stars appear to oscillate slightly more, back and forth, compared to the more distance stars13 . The underlying principle of measuring stellar distances, then, is actually rather straightforward—it’s just the small size of this parallax motion that makes the task so challenging. We now know that the stars nearest to the Sun, for example Alpha and Proxima Centauri, have parallax shifts of around one second of arc, while more distant stars have smaller parallax angles still.