MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: In what constellation is our solar system?

Date: Sun Aug 1 17:52:36 1999
Posted By: Lew Gramer, MIT S.B. Math (Theoretical)
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 933477461.As

J.W., your question points up an optical illusion we all
share here on Earth: namely that the stars, which actually lie
at an unimaginably wide variety of distances, all in fact seem
to be "pinpoints" of light on a single surface - what appears
to our as the single inner surface of a "dome of heaven".

Naturally, though, the Constellations and other star patterns
we see from earth are composed of stars both as near as the
nearest stars (like Alpha Centauri, a "mere" 25 trillion miles
away), and as far away as the edges of our Milky Way Galaxy.
Thus, there is no one area in space which can be said to be
occupied by any of these Constellations - and thus no Const-
ellation which the Sun and its tiny entourage of planets can
be said to reside in! The Constellations are mere projections
or "illusions of perspective", because all the stars except the
Sun are so far away they uniformly appear as points to our eyes.

However, there is a "center" around which our solar system, and
ALL other stars which we can see with the unaided eye, does in
fact revolve: Remember that you may have heard the Milky Way is
a vast island of stars (some 100-400 BILLION stars in fact!) This
island of stars is shaped roughly like a dinner plate - fairly
symmetric, highly flattened, and with a central "hub" or core.
This core is the "center" which all the stars you can see on any
given night - as well as our Solar System itself - revolve around.

One last note: we can see with even the smallest telescopes (and
even our unaided eyes in a dark enough sky), other "star islands"
like the Milky Way, with their own batallions of billions of stars
all orbiting around a common core... To the creatures we imagine
living on planets orbiting the individual stars of those distant
galaxies, the Milky Way which contains ALL the stars we see is a
mere wisp of light... From their point of view, our Sun and all of
its fellow Milky Way lie projected against their own "sky dome" -
possibly lying in (really far in back of!) a "constellation" formed
by their own local galaxy's stars: it's all a matter of perspective!

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