BREAKING: Astronomers just set a new record for measuring distances across our galaxy

Being unable to see the wood for the trees is a fairly common idiom, though we could just as easily say we can’t see the Milky Way for the stars.

Thanks to recent research based on an old astronomy trick, we now have a more accurate idea of where objects are on the other side of the galaxy, filling in key details to the map of our own cosmic backyard.

 

As familiar as the night sky might be, sitting smack bang in the middle of our own galaxy makes it a little harder to get a complete picture of how it looks from the outside.

The fact it’s a flattened disc doesn’t help matters much; the best we can do is find ways to measure the relative positions of stars and plot them on a 3D map.

But how do we know how far away a star is? Those twinkling nuclear furnaces come in all manner of sizes and luminosities, so astronomers can’t use brightness to determine stellar distances.

To make their record-breaking measurement, astronomers from the Max-Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US used an astronomy technique that dates back nearly 180 years.

Stellar parallax was first used in 1838 by the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel to measure the distance to a star in the constellation Cygnus.

His measurement of 10.3 light years was about a light year off; not bad for a guy with a simple telescope, keen eyes, and some sharp trigonometry skills.

 

The basics are fairly straightforward; hold up a forefinger close to your face and close one eye. Then open it, and close the other.

Repeat this with your finger held at a distance. The apparent change in your finger’s position as you look at it with each eye depends on how far away it is from your face.

You’d need your eyes to be pretty far apart to detect the shifts in something as distant as a star.

Fortunately as the Earth orbits the Sun, we get just that.

A dozen light years away is virtually just over the galactic back fence. To get to see more of the galaxy, we…

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