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Basic Astronomical Terms
Here some basic astronomical terms, relevant for the SEDS Messier
database, are shortly explained, in the hope to help beginners.
For more information you need, please refer to one of the following:
- Chris Kronberg’s
- Our small Deep Sky Glossary
- Bill Arnett’s
Web Nebula Glossary
- Chris Kronberg’s
of Astronomical Teaching Texts
- or our (soon to come)
Brightness of a star or celestial object if seen from a standard distance of
10 parsecs (32.6 light years), expressed in
Two directions, or straight (half) lines through a point, in a plane or in
space form an angle which measures the deviation of the one direction from
the other. Commonly measured in degrees (deg),
arc minutes (arc min, m, ‘) and
arc seconds (arc sec, “);
the full circle (or revolution) is 360 deg, 1 deg = 60′, 1′ = 60”.
The angle under which a (celestial) object appears for
an observer, typically measured in arc minutes.
Units for angles.
1 arc min = 1′ = 1/60 deg, 1 arc sec = 1″ = 1/60 arc min.
Intensity of light received from a (celestial) object by an observer (or
apparatus). Because of the sensitivity of the human eye, brightness is
perceived logarithmically, and the perceived intensity is measured in
Celestial coordinate corresponding to latitude in the equatorial celestial
coordinate system. Measured in degrees, arc minuntes and arc seconds,
running from -90 deg to +90 deg.
Length of the direct, shortest way between two points or objects; here,
commonly the distance of a celestial object from Earth, the Solar System,
or the Milky Way Galaxy is considered. Measured in units of length:
feet, miles, centimeters, meters, kilometers, Astronomical Units, or
(more commonly here) light-years (ly),
kiloparsecs (kpc), Megaparsecs (Mpc) and Gigaparsecs (Gpc).
Difference between apparent magnitude m and
absolute magnitude M of an object,
corrected for interstellar absorption. Corresponds to a
distance D by the relation
m - M = 5 lg (D/10 pc) = 5 lg (D/pc) - 5 = 5 lg (D/kly) + 9.4868 D = 10 pc * 10^((m-M)/5)
The distance (or length) of 1000 Light Years.
Used as lenght unit in many of our data tables.
Light propagates in vacuum with a constant speed, which according to special
relativity, is measured at the same value by each observer, namely
c = 299,792 km/sec (186,282 miles per second), or more acurately, exactly
299,792,458 m/sec by definition. This value defines, at last, the length
of a meter, from time units, which are measurable by much higher acuracy than
The distance for which light, with its speed of
299,792 km/sec (186,282 miles per second) needs one year travel time.
1 ly = 9.46 trillion (10^12) km or 5.88 trillion miles
(more acurately: 9.4608953536 * 10^12 km).
Similarly, a light-second (ls) is defined as the distance for which
light needs one second, and there are light-minutes (lm),
light-days (ld) and even light-weeks and light-months defined
Logarithmical measure for the brightness of celestial objects.
Defined so that a factor 10 in brightness corresponds to 2.5 magnitudes
difference, where the brighter object has the smaller value of magnitudes.
Formally, for objects 1 and 2 with brightness B1 and B2, the difference
of magnitudes m1 and m2 is given by
m1 - m2 = - 2.5 lg (B1/B2)
Definition of the zero point is adjusted for the stars of a fundamental
sample. Historically, it was once adjusted for the North Star, Polaris,
but it turned out that this star is variable in light.
One distinguished apparent magnitude (which is measured by an observer)
and absolute magnitude (which is taken at a standard
distance and a measure for the intrinsic luminosity of a celestial object).
The difference between them is a logarithmic measure for the
distance of the object, the so-called
The distance from which the mean distance of Earth’s orbit
around the Sun, the astronomical unit, appears under the
Here, we prefer to use the light year;
1 pc = 3.26 ly.
Celestial coordinate corresponding to longitude in the equatorial celestial
coordinate system. Commonly measured in hours (h), minutes (m) and seconds (s)
where hours are used as measure for angles here, so that
the full revolution of 360 deg corresponds to 24 h, and
1 h = 15 deg .
The Null coordinate is defined by the vernal equinox, the direction where the
Sun apparently crosses the celestial equator to the North around March 21 in
each year, currently situated in Pisces.
Last Modification: 10 Mar 1998, 10:00 MET