Astrometry

The branch of astronomy dealing with the movements and positions of celestial bodies.

Astrometry dates back to the earliest days of astronomy when the first star catalogues were being produced, e.g. that of Hipparchus in 190BC. Early measurements were probably made using cross-staffs to measure the relative positions of stars from one-another and from features on the horizon. As time progressed, more sophisticated instruments were used, such as the astrolabe.

The same principles are still used in modern astronomy but have become very precise and can measure the wobbles in the movements of stars that could indicate the presence of extrasolar planets or to find astrometric binary star systems.

Astrometry also includes the measurement of parallax. If you observe an object from two widely spaced locations, you will measure a slight difference in position. From the annular differences in position and knowing the distance between the two locations of observation, the distance of stars can be determined. That was taken to a new level with the Hipparcos satellite launched by the ESA. Early parallax measurements were limited to relatively close stars, however, the distances of several cepheid variable stars was measured. Thes can then be used as ‘standard candles’ when seen in distant galaxies to give a reasonable estimate of their distances. Further refinement to astrometric determination of distant objects came with the advent of interferometry.

As with all measurements of the extremely large and extremely small, astrometric measurements require careful error correction. As knowledge and instrumentation improves, distances and speeds of star movements are constantly being refined and it is believed that it is now possible to see the peturbations in stellar motion caused by planets not much more massive than the Earth.

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