AskDefine | Define astrometry

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astrometry n : the branch of astronomy that deals with the measurement of the position and motion of celestial bodies

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  1. that branch of astronomy that deals with the measurement of the positions and motions of celestial bodies, particularly stars

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Extensive Definition

Astrometry is the branch of astronomy that relates to precise measurements and explanations of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies. Although once thought of as an esoteric field with little useful application for the future, the information obtained by astrometric measurements is now very important in contemporary research into the kinematics and physical origin of our Solar System and our Galaxy, the Milky Way.


The history of astrometry is linked to the history of star catalogues, which gave astronomers reference points for objects in the sky so they could track their movements. This can be dated back to Hipparchus, who around 190 BC used the catalogue of his predecessors Timocharis and Aristillus to discover the earth’s precession. In doing so, he also invented the brightness scale still in use today.
James Bradley first tried to measure stellar parallaxes in 1729. The stellar movement proved too insignificant for his telescope, but he instead discovered the aberration of light and the nutation of the Earth’s axis. His cataloguing of 3222 stars was refined in 1807 by Friedrich Bessel, the father of modern astrometry. He made the first measurement of stellar parallax: 0.3 arcsec for the binary star 61 Cygni.
Being very difficult to measure, only about 60 stellar parallaxes had been obtained by the end of the 19th century. Automated plate-measuring machines and more sophisticated computer technology of the 1960s allowed for larger compilations of star catalogues to be achieved more efficiently. In the 1980s, charge-coupled devices (CCDs) replaced photographic plates and reduced optical uncertainties to one milliarcsecond. This technology made astrometry less expensive, opening the field to an amateur audience.
In 1989, the European Space Agency's Hipparcos satellite took astrometry into orbit, where it could be less affected by mechanical forces of the Earth and optical distortions from its atmosphere. Operated from 1989 to 1993, Hipparcos measured large and small angles on the sky with much greater precision than any previous optical telescopes. During its 4-year run, the positions, parallaxes, and proper motions of 118,218 stars were determined with an incredible degree of accuracy. A new catalogue “Tycho” drew together a database of 1,058,332 to within 20-30 mas. Additional catalogues were compiled for the 23,882 double/multiple stars and 11,597 variable stars also analyzed during the Hipparcos mission.
Today, the catalogue most often used is USNO-B1.0, an all-sky catalogue that tracks proper motions, positions, magnitudes and other characteristics for over one billion stellar objects. During the past 50 years, 7,435 Schmidt plates were used to complete several sky surveys that make the data in USNO-B1.0 accurate to within 0.2 arcsecond.


Apart from the fundamental function of providing astronomers with a reference frame to report their observations in, astrometry is also fundamental for fields like celestial mechanics, stellar dynamics and galactic astronomy. In observational astronomy, astrometric techniques help identify stellar objects by their unique motions. It is instrumental for keeping time, in that UTC is basically the atomic time synchronized to Earth's rotation by means of exact observations. Astrometry is also involved in creating the cosmic distance ladder because it is used to establish parallax distance estimates for stars in the Milky Way.
Astronomers use astrometric techniques for the tracking of near-Earth objects. It has been also been used to detect extrasolar planets by measuring the displacement they cause in their parent star's apparent position on the sky, due to their mutual orbit around the center of mass of the system. NASA's planned Space Interferometry Mission (SIM PlanetQuest) will utilize astrometric techniques to detect terrestrial planets orbiting 200 or so of the nearest solar-type stars.
Astrometric measurements are used by astrophysicists to constrain certain models in celestial mechanics. By measuring the velocities of pulsars, it is possible to put a limit on the asymmetry of supernova explosions. Also, astrometric results are used to determine the distribution of dark matter in the galaxy.
Astrometry is responsible for the detection of many record-breaking solar system objects. To find such objects astrometrically, astronomers use telescopes to survey the sky and large-area cameras to take pictures at various determined intervals. By studying these images, we can notice solar system objects by their movements relative to the background stars, which remain fixed. Once a movement per unit time is observed, astronomers compensate for the amount of parallax caused by the earth’s motion during this time and the heliocentric distance to this object is calculated. Then, using this distance and other photographs, more information about the object, such as parallax, proper motion, and the semimajor axis of its orbit, can be obtained.
Quaoar and 90377 Sedna are two solar system objects discovered in this way by Michael E. Brown and others at Caltech using the Palomar Observatory’s Samual Oschin 48 inch Schmidt telescope and the Palomar-Quest large-area CCD camera. The ability of astronomers to track the positions and movements of such celestial bodies is crucial to the understanding of our Solar System and its interrelated past, present, and future with others in our Universe.


A fundamental aspect of astrometry is error correction. Various factors introduce errors into the measurement of stellar positions, including atmospheric conditions, imperfections in the instruments and errors by the observer or the measuring instruments. Many of these errors can be reduced by various techniques, such as through instrument improvements and compensations to the data. The results are then analyzed using statistical methods to compute data estimates and error ranges.

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