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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 57.djvu/666

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

quent investigations have, however, made it probable that this result was about double the true value of the parallax.

The third successful attempt was made by Henderson, of England, astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope. He found from meridian observations that the star Alpha Centauri had a parallax of about 1". This is a double star of the first magnitude, which, being only 30° from the south celestial pole, never rises in our latitudes. Its nearness to us was indicated not only by its magnitude, but also by its considerable proper motion.

Although subsequent investigation has shown the parallax of this body to be less than that found by Henderson, it is, up to the time of writing, the nearest star whose distance has been ascertained. The extreme difficulty of detecting movements so slight as those we have described, when they take six months to go through their phases, will be obvious to the reader. He would be still more impressed with it when, looking through a powerful telescope at any star, he sees how it flickers in consequence of the continual motions going on in the air through which it is seen and how difficult it must be to fix any point of reference from which to measure the change of direction.

The latter is the capital difficulty in measuring the parallax. How shall we know that a star has changed its direction by a fraction of a second in the course of six months? There must be for this purpose some standard direction from which we can measure.

The most certain of these standard directions is that of the earth's axis of rotation. It is true that this direction varies in the course of the year, but the amount of the variation is known with great precision, so that it can be properly allowed for in the reduction of the observations. The angle between the direction of a star and that of the earth's axis, the latter direction being represented by the celestial pole, can be measured with our meridian instruments. It is, in fact, the north polar distance of the star, or the complement of its declination. If, therefore, the astronomer could measure the declination of a star with great precision throughout the entire year, he would be able to determine its parallax by a comparison of the measures. But it is found impossible in practice to make measures of so long an arc with the necessary precision. The uncertain and changing effect of the varying seasons and different temperatures of day and night upon the air and the instrument almost masks the parallax. After several attempts with the finest instruments, handled with the utmost skill, to determine stellar parallax from the declinations of the stars, the method has been practically abandoned.

The method now practiced is that of relative parallax. By this method the standard direction is that of a small star apparently alongside one whose parallax is to be measured, but, presumably, so much