Astronomical distances

Eta Carinae

Light years and parsecs

Special units of measurement are needed to cope with the Universe's vast distances - light years, for example. A light year is the distance light travels in one year through a vacuum, about 9.46 trillion km.

A parsec is 3.26 light years, as Chris Lintott explains.

An astronomical unit is the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun, about 150 million km.

So the star Eta Carinae is an estimated 7,500 light years, 2,301 parsecs or 474,308,078 astronomical units from the Sun.

Image: An X-ray image of the star Eta Carinae (credit: NASA/CXC/SAO)

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Eta Carinae


What is a light year?

About Astronomical distances

Distance measures are used in physical cosmology to give a natural notion of the distance between two objects or events in the universe. They are often used to tie some observable quantity (such as the luminosity of a distant quasar, the redshift of a distant galaxy, or the angular size of the acoustic peaks in the CMB power spectrum) to another quantity that is not directly observable, but is more convenient for calculations (such as the comoving coordinates of the quasar, galaxy, etc.). The distance measures discussed here all reduce to the common notion of Euclidean distance at low redshift.

In accord with our present understanding of cosmology, these measures are calculated within the context of general relativity, where the Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker solution is used to describe the universe.

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