(8b) ParallaxThen we can regard the (straight) "baseline" AB as approximately equal to an arc of a circle centered at C, and knowing that 360° correspond to the full circle 2πR, use this to calculate the distance R = AC 
Part of a high school course on astronomy, Newtonian mechanics and spaceflight
by David P. Stern
This lesson plan supplements: "Parallax," section #8b: on disk Sparalax.htm, on the web http://www.phy6.org/stargaze/Sparalax.htm
"From Stargazers to Starships" home page and index: on disk Sintro.htm, on the web 
Goals: The student will
Terms: Parallax, baseline, light year, parsec; degrees, minutes and seconds of arc. Stories and extras: The 1838 measurements of the distance to the nearest stars. Optional discussion of methods by which pictures and displays can present a 3dimensional view.
Start of the lesson: When you observe a distant object from two separate locations, you get slightly different views, because you view it from two different angles. The information you get from such a pair of observations should be sufficient to calculate how far the object is, without having to go there. Say the two points are named A and B, and the location of the distant object is C (draw on the board to illustrate). All you need is to know the distance ABthat is your "baseline"and the angles between AB and the lines to the object C from both its ends. Once you have these angles, you can draw on paper a triangle with the same angles as the triangle ABCa triangle which has the same proportions. Comparing in that triangle the line representing AB to the actual baseline AB you have measured, you get the scale of the drawing, the ratio between distances in the "real world" and distances on your drawing. You can then measure on the drawing (say) the distance AC to the distant object, and by multiplying this by the scale factor, find what the actual distance is. But why bother with scale drawings on paper (which anyway have limited inaccuracy) if we can just as easily (or even more so) calculate distances such as AC? Such calculations belong to the field of trigonometryliterally, "the measurement of triangles." [The teacher may expand this part to cover "TrigonometryWhat is it good for?," Section M7 of "Stargazers".] Today we will not need "real" trigonometry, in which ABC can be a triangle of any shape, but will confine our attention to triangles which are long and skinny. You get such triangles in astronomy, where the distances can be, well, astronomical, while the baseline may be a distance on Earth, which is much shorter. In such triangles, you do not make a great error if you regard them as pieshaped slivers from a big circle. The ratio between the baseline and the circumference of the circle [use the board to illustrate] is then the ratio between your parallaxthe angle between your two lines of view, from the two ends of the baseline band 360°, the angle covering the entire circle. However, the length of that circle is 2πR, where R is the distance AC. So what you wind up with is the ratio between b and R, which is what we wanted. We will go over that again, with various applications. Guiding questions and additional tidbits (With suggested answers and extensions).
 What is the "baseline" in a parallax measurement?
 What does the word "parallax" mean?
The parallax depends on the size of the baseline: the bigger the baseline, the bigger the parallax
 When we use a yardstick to measure the distance between two points on a wall, we sometimes close one eye and put the other right above the mark with which we want to line up some division on the yardstick. Why?
To make sure this does not happen, we close one eye and place the other so that our line of sight is perpendicular to the wall.
 Describe how you use your outstretched thumb to measure distance outdoors.
 Why does this method work?
The thumb forms the tip of two triangles, of identical proportions, "similar" triangles. The triangle formed by the thumb and the eyes has a base (the distance between the eyes) about 1/10 of the distance to the thumb. Therefore the same ratio also holds for the other triangle, between the thumb and two distant points it covers, when viewed from either eye.
Optional discussion: Mention that one reason why humans and animals have two eyes is that by viewing objects from two slightly separated positions, we get a feeling of 3dimensional depth. Has anyone ever walked towards an eye level clothesline? It can be very disconcerting because you get no feeling for its distance, since both eyes see the clothesline the same way. Does anyone own a stereo viewer? Bring one to class, if possible! These are little toy viewers, with a window for each eye and with a place into which one can slide a special frame with transparenciesusually a wheel with about 6 pairs of transparencies, which can be changed by pressing a lever. . Each eye sees a slightly different picture, giving one a 3D impression. Around 1900, a cruder version of the viewer, the "stereoscope" or "stereoopticon," was very popular. Simpler 3D viewers use "glasses" in which you look at the picture through two pieces of colored cellophanea red one for one eye, a green one for the other. Without the glasses you see two overlapping pictures, one red, one green, but the eye looking through the green foil cannot see the red picture, and the other one does not see the green one. Since the pictures are slightly different, you get a 3D effect, though in unusual color. Nowadays computers exist connected to special glasses which give a 3D view, combining polaroid material with "liquid crystals" similar to the ones used in electronic watches. Polaroid material only transmits light that vibrates in one direction (it still looks normal to the eye), and by "turning on" the liquid crystal of either eye with a pulse of electricity, it can be made to block that direction, with the result that all the light coming to that eye is blocked. Liquid crystals can be switched on and off very rapidly. The pulse of electricity is linked to a computer or TV, which shows a rapid alternation of two sets of imagesone for the left eye, one for the right one. The pulses are sent out in such a way, that each eye is blocked from seeing the picture not meant for it. A person not equipped with the glasses will see both sets of pictures with both eyes and will received a blurred view.  What baseline is used to measure distance to faraway stars?
 What is a parsec?
 The space shuttle orbits at an altitude of about 200 miles or 320 kilometers. How big would an object at that distance have to be, to cover 1 second of arc?
 How many stars are known to be within 1 parsec of Earth?
 What is a light year?
For comparison: the Sun is 8 lightminutes away, Pluto about 5 lighthours.
 What is bigger a light year or a parsec? And by how much?BR>
 How far is Alpha Centauri, the nearest Sunlike star?

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Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated: 12.17.2001