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Astrometry is the branch of astronomy that relates to precise measurements and explanations of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies. Although once thought of as an esoteric field with little useful application for the future, the information obtained by astrometric measurements is now very important in contemporary research into the kinematics and physical origin of our Solar System and our Galaxy, the Milky Way.


The history of astrometry is linked to the history of star catalogues, which gave astronomers reference points for objects in the sky so they could track their movements. This can be dated back to Hipparchus, who around 190 BC used the catalogue of his predecessors Timocharis and Aristillus to discover the earth’s precession. In doing so, he also developed the brightness scale still in use today. Hipparchus compiled a catalogue with at least 850 stars and their positions. Hipparchus's successor, Ptolemy, included a catalogue of 1,022 stars in his work the Almagest, giving their location, coordinates, and brightness.

In the 10th century, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi carried out observations on the stars and described their positions, magnitudes, brightness, and colour, and gave drawings for each constellation, in his Book of Fixed Stars. Ibn Yunus observed more than 10,000 entries for the sun's position for many years using a large astrolabe with a diameter of nearly 1.4 metres. His observations on eclipses were still used centuries later in Simon Newcomb's investigations on the motion of the moon, while his other observations inspired Laplace's Obliquity of the Ecliptic and Inequalities of Jupiter and Saturn's.[clarification needed][4] In the 15th century, the Timurid astronomer Ulugh Beg compiled the Zij-i-Sultani, in which he catalogued 1,019 stars. Like the earlier catalogs of Hipparchus and Ptolemy, Ulugh Beg's catalogue is estimated to have been precise to within approximately 20 minutes of arc.[5]

In the 16th century, Tycho Brahe used improved instruments, including large mural instruments, to measure star positions more accurately than previously, with a precision of 15–35 seconds.[6] Taqi al-Din measured the right ascension of the stars at the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din using the "observational clock" he invented.[7] When telescopes became commonplace, setting circles sped measurements.

James Bradley first tried to measure stellar parallaxes in 1729. The stellar movement proved too insignificant for his telescope, but he instead discovered the aberration of light and the nutation of the Earth’s axis. His cataloguing of 3222 stars was refined in 1807 by Friedrich Bessel, the father of modern astrometry. He made the first measurement of stellar parallax: 0.3 arcsec for the binary star 61 Cygni.

Being very difficult to measure, only about 60 stellar parallaxes had been obtained by the end of the 19th century, mostly by use of the filar micrometer. Astrographs using astronomical photographic plates sped the process in the early 20th century. Automated plate-measuring machines[8] and more sophisticated computer technology of the 1960s allowed more efficient compilation of star catalogues. In the 1980s, charge-coupled devices (CCDs) replaced photographic plates and reduced optical uncertainties to one milliarcsecond. This technology made astrometry less expensive, opening the field to an amateur audience.

In 1989, the European Space Agency's Hipparcos satellite took astrometry into orbit, where it could be less affected by mechanical forces of the Earth and optical distortions from its atmosphere. Operated from 1989 to 1993, Hipparcos measured large and small angles on the sky with much greater precision than any previous optical telescopes. During its 4-year run, the positions, parallaxes, and proper motions of 118,218 stars were determined with an unprecedented degree of accuracy. A new catalogue “Tycho” drew together a database of 1,058,332 to within 20-30 mas. Additional catalogues were compiled for the 23,882 double/multiple stars and 11,597 variable stars also analyzed during the Hipparcos mission.

Today, the catalogue most often used is USNO-B1.0, an all-sky catalogue that tracks proper motions, positions, magnitudes and other characteristics for over one billion stellar objects. During the past 50 years, 7,435 Schmidt plates were used to complete several sky surveys that make the data in USNO-B1.0 accurate to within 0.2 arcsecond.