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Distance Between Stars

Explains how parallax is used to measure distances to objects a few hundred light years from Earth, but brightness is used for objects at greater distances.

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Distance Between Stars

How far is that star?

How can you measure the distance of an object that is too far away to measure? What if you don’t know the size of the object or the size or distance of any other objects like it? That is the problem facing astronomers when they try to measure the distances to stars.


Distances to stars that are relatively close to us can be measured using parallax. Parallax is an apparent shift in position that takes place when the position of the observer changes.

To see an example of parallax, try holding your finger about 1 foot (30 cm) in front of your eyes. Now, while focusing on your finger, close one eye and then the other. Alternate back and forth between eyes, and pay attention to how your finger appears to move. The shift in position of your finger is an example of parallax. Now try moving your finger closer to your eyes, and repeat the experiment. Do you notice any difference? The closer your finger is to your eyes, the greater the position changes because of parallax.

As Figure below shows, astronomers use this same principle to measure the distance to stars. Instead of a finger, they focus on a star, and instead of switching back and forth between eyes, they switch between the biggest possible differences in observing position. To do this, an astronomer first looks at the star from one position and notes where the star is relative to more distant stars. Now where will the astronomer go to make an observation the greatest possible distance from the first observation? In six months, after Earth moves from one side of its orbit around the Sun to the other side, the astronomer looks at the star again. This time parallax causes the star to appear in a different position relative to more distant stars. From the size of this shift, astronomers can calculate the distance to the star.

For more about parallax, visit http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/questions/parallax.html and http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/YBA/HTCas-size/parallax1-more.html.

Parallax can be used to measure the distance to nearby stars

Parallax is used to measure the distance to stars that are relatively nearby.

A parallax exercise is seen here: http://www.astro.ubc.ca/~scharein/a311/Sim/new-parallax/Parallax.html.

Other Methods

Even with the most precise instruments available, parallax is too small to measure the distance to stars that are more than a few hundred light years away. For these more distant stars, astronomers must use more indirect methods of determining distance. Most of these methods involve determining how bright the star they are looking at really is. For example, if the star has properties similar to the Sun, then it should be about as bright as the Sun. The astronomer compares the observed brightness to the expected brightness.


  • Parallax is the apparent shift in position of an object due to a change in the position of an observer.
  • Parallax is useful for determining distances of stars that are a few hundred light years from Earth.
  • Brightness is used to determine the distances of stars that are further away.


Use these resources to answer the questions that follow.


  1. What is parallax?
  2. How can parallax be used to determine distances?
  3. What is the farthest apart two locations on Earth's orbit can be? When can that happen?
  4. What has produced the most accurate parallax measurements to date?
  5. What will Gaia measure?


  1. Why is parallax only good for measuring the distances of stars that are no more than a few hundred light years away?
  2. Explain the process that you would use to determine the distance to a star that was about 100 light years away.
  3. How do astronomers determine the distance to a star that is further than a few hundred light years away?



A method used by astronomers to calculate the distance to nearby stars, using the apparent shift relative to distant stars.

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