(Submitted April 20, 1998)
I am studying to become an elementary teacher, and I am
interested in how the distances of the planets and
stars were discovered. I read the question asked about stars,
but I am interested in how these methods were discovered.
In other words, what is the history? It seems difficult
for me to imagine how we can estimate these distances when
they are so far away. It is especially interesting how
scientists first judged these distances before we sent any
space craft or satellites into space. Could you please
tell me how I might begin to research this question?
The people we call Ancient Greeks (some of whom lived in e.g., Egypt) did a
lot of this stuff a few centuries B.C., to the limits of naked eye
observation. Eratosthenes measured the size of Earth, to good accuracy.
Hipparchus and Aristarchus measured the distances to the Moon and to the
Sun respectively (the Sun distance was off by a factor of ~20).
The ancient Greeks knew about parallax, and from the fact that the stars
didn't move over the course of the year, they determined that the Earth did
not move--unless of course the stars were so ridiculously far away that the
movement would not be seen (Aristotle, I believe).
Once people started flitting around the world in boats, navigation became
important--which made it useful to determine the size of the Solar system
to make calculations more accurate. Measuring the transit of a planet
across the Sun's disk from multiple places on Earth was an accurate way of
measuring the parallax distance. Some of Captain Cook's voyages were for
A good college-level text on astronomy will give you a simplified history
of the development of 'the cosmological distance ladder' which allows us to
use a chain of different techniques, each calibrated against the previous
one, to determine the distance to distant galaxies and quasars.
for Ask an Astrophysicist