aberration of starlight

aberration of starlight, displacement of the apparent path of light from a star, resulting in a displacement of the apparent position of the star from its true position; discovered by the English astronomer James Bradley and explained by him in 1729. The phenomenon is caused by the orbital motion of the earth; in the same way, vertically falling raindrops appear to fall diagonally when viewed from a moving vehicle. The true path of light from a star to an observer is along the straight line from the star to the observer; but, because of the component of the observer's velocity in a direction perpendicular to the direction to the star, the light appears to be traveling along a path at an angle to the true direction to the star. Thus, in order to observe a star the central axis of a telescope must be tilted as much as 20.5” (seconds of arc) from the true direction to the star, the exact amount of the angle depending on the direction to the star relative to the direction of the earth's motion in its orbit. Because of the earth's orbital motion, the stars appear to move in elliptical paths on the celestial sphere. All these ellipses have the same semimajor axis, 20.5” of arc, a value known as the constant of aberration. The tangent of the constant of aberration is equal to the ratio of the earth's orbital speed to the speed of light.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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