Apropos of yesterday’s article on the discovery of Proxima Centauri, it’s worth noting that Murray Leinster’s story “Proxima Centauri,” which ran in Astounding Stories in March of 1935, was published just seven years after H. A. Alden’s parallax findings demonstrated beyond all doubt that Proxima was the closest star to the Sun, vindicating both Robert Innes and J. G. E. G. Voûte. Leinster’s mile-wide starship makes the first interstellar crossing only to encounter a race of intelligent plants, the first science fiction story I know of to tackle the voyage to this star.
The work surrounding Proxima Centauri was intensive, but another fast-moving star called Gamma Draconis in Draco, now known to be about 154 light years from Earth thanks to the precision measurements of the Hipparcos astrometry satellite, might have superseded it. About 70 percent more massive than the Sun, Gamma Draconis has an optical companion that may be an M-dwarf at about 1000 AU from the parent. Its bid for history came from the work of an astronomer named James Bradley, who tried without success to measure its parallax. Bradley was working in the early 18th Century on the problem and found no apparent motion.
Stellar parallax turned out to be too small an effect for Bradley’s instruments to measure. Most Centauri Dreams readers will be familiar with the notion of observing the same object from first one, then the other side of the Earth’s orbit, looking to determine from the angles thus presented the distance to the object. It’s no wonder that such measurements were beyond the efforts of early astronomers and the apparent lack of parallax served as an argument against heliocentrism. A lack of parallax implied a far greater distance to the stars than was then thought possible, and what seemed to be an unreasonable void between the planets and the stars.
It would fall to the German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel to make the first successful measurement of stellar parallax, using a device called a heliometer, which was originally designed to measure the variation of the Sun’s diameter at different times of the year. As so often happens in these matters, Bessel was working on 61 Cygni at the same time that another astronomer — his friend Thomas Henderson — was trying to come up with a parallax reading for Alpha Centauri. Henderson had been tipped off by an observer on St. Helena who was charting star positions for the British East India Company that Alpha Centauri had a large proper motion.
Henderson was at that time observing at the Cape of Good Hope, using what turned out to be slightly defective equipment that may have contributed to his delays in getting the Alpha Centauri parallax into circulation. In any event, Bessel’s heliometer method proved superior to Henderson’s mural circle and Dollond transit (see this Astronomical Society of Southern Africa page for more on these instruments), and Bessel’s findings on 61 Cygni were accepted by the Royal Astronomical Society in London in 1842, while Henderson’s own figures were questioned.
Bessel thus goes down as the first to demonstrate stellar parallax. Henderson went on to tighten up his own readings on Alpha Centauri, using measurements taken by his successor at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, but it took several decades for the modern value of the parallax to be established. But both astronomers were on to the essential fact that parallax was coming within the capabilities of the instruments of their time, and by the end of the 19th Century, about 60 stellar parallaxes had been obtained. The parallax of Proxima Centauri, for the record, is now known to be 0.7687 ± 0.0003 arcsec, the largest of any star yet found.
Image: A portrait of the German mathematician Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel by the Danish portrait painter Christian Albrecht Jensen. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
While the Hipparcos satellite was able to extend the parallax method dramatically, it falls to the upcoming Gaia mission to measure parallax angles down to an accuracy of 10 microarcseconds, meaning we should be able to firm up distances to stars tens of thousands of light years from the Earth. Indeed, working with stars down to magnitude 20 (400,000 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye), Gaia will be able to measure the distance of stars as far away as the galactic center to an accuracy of 20 percent. The Gaia mission’s planners aim to develop a catalog encompassing fully one billion stars, producing a three-dimensional star map that will not only contain newly discovered extrasolar planets but brown dwarfs and thousands of other objects useful in understanding the evolution of the Milky Way.
One can only imagine what the earliest reckoners of stellar distance would have made of all this. Archimedes followed the heliocentric astronomer Aristarchus in calculating that the distance to the stars, compared to the Sun, was proportionally as far away as the ratio of the radius of the Earth was to the distance to the Sun (thanks to Adam Crowl for this reference). Using the figures he was working with, that works out to a stellar distance of 100 million Earth radii, a figure then all but inconceivable. If we translated into our modern values for these parameters, the stars Aristarchus was charting would be 6.378 x 1011 (637,800,000,000) kilometers away. The actual distance to Alpha Centauri is now known to be roughly 40 trillion (4 x 1013) kilometers.