History and derivation
The parsec is defined as being equal to the length of the longer leg of an extremely elongated imaginary right triangle in space. The two dimensions on which this triangle is based are its shorter leg, of length one astronomical unit (the average Earth-Sun distance), and the subtended angle of the vertex opposite that leg, measuring one arc second. Applying the rules of trigonometry to these two values, the unit length of the other leg of the triangle (the parsec) can be derived.
One of the oldest methods used by astronomers to calculate the distance to a star is to record the difference in angle between two measurements of the position of the star in the sky. The first measurement is taken from the Earth on one side of the Sun, and the second is taken approximately half a year later, when the Earth is on the opposite side of the Sun. The distance between the two positions of the Earth when the two measurements were taken is twice the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The difference in angle between the two measurements is twice the parallax angle, which is formed by lines from the Sun and Earth to the star at the distant vertex. Then the distance to the star could be calculated using trigonometry. The first successful published direct measurements of an object at interstellar distances were undertaken by German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1838, who used this approach to calculate the 3.5-parsec distance of 61 Cygni.
Stellar parallax motion from annual parallax
The parallax of a star is defined as half of the angular distance that a star appears to move relative to the celestial sphere as Earth orbits the Sun. Equivalently, it is the subtended angle, from that star's perspective, of the semimajor axis of the Earth's orbit. The star, the Sun and the Earth form the corners of an imaginary right triangle in space: the right angle is the corner at the Sun, and the corner at the star is the parallax angle. The length of the opposite side to the parallax angle is the distance from the Earth to the Sun (defined as one astronomical unit (au), and the length of the adjacent side gives the distance from the sun to the star. Therefore, given a measurement of the parallax angle, along with the rules of trigonometry, the distance from the Sun to the star can be found. A parsec is defined as the length of the side adjacent to the vertex occupied by a star whose parallax angle is one arcsecond.
The use of the parsec as a unit of distance follows naturally from Bessel's method, because the distance in parsecs can be computed simply as the reciprocal of the parallax angle in arcseconds (i.e. if the parallax angle is 1 arcsecond, the object is 1 pc from the Sun; if the parallax angle is 0.5 arcseconds, the object is 2 pc away; etc.). No trigonometric functions are required in this relationship because the very small angles involved mean that the approximate solution of the skinny triangle can be applied.
Though it may have been used before, the term parsec was first mentioned in an astronomical publication in 1913. Astronomer Royal Frank Watson Dyson expressed his concern for the need of a name for that unit of distance. He proposed the name astron, but mentioned that Carl Charlier had suggested siriometer and Herbert Hall Turner had proposed parsec. It was Turner's proposal that stuck.
Calculating the value of a parsec
In the diagram above (not to scale), S represents the Sun, and E the Earth at one point in its orbit. Thus the distance ES is one astronomical unit (au). The angle SDE is one arcsecond (1/3600 of a degree) so by definition D is a point in space at a distance of one parsec from the Sun. Through trigonometry, the distance SD is calculated as follows:
Because the astronomical unit is defined to be 597870700 m, 149 the following can be calculated:
|Therefore, 1 parsec
||≈ 264.806247096 astronomical units
|≈ 677581×1016 3.085metres
|≈ 511577 trillion 19.173miles
|≈ 563777 3.261light-years
A corollary states that a parsec is also the distance from which a disc one astronomical unit in diameter must be viewed for it to have an angular diameter of one arcsecond (by placing the observer at D and a diameter of the disc on ES).
Mathematically, to calculate distance, given obtained angular measurements from instruments in arcseconds, the formula would be:
where θ is the measured angle in arcseconds, Distanceearth-sun is a constant (1 AU or 1.5813×10−5 ly). The calculated stellar distance will be in the same measurement unit as used in Distanceearth-sun (e.g. if Distanceearth-sun = 1 AU, unit for Distancestar is in astronomical units; if Distanceearth-sun = 1.5813×10−5 ly, unit for Distancestar is in light years).
The length of the parsec used in IAU 2015 Resolution B2 (exactly 000648/π astronomical units) corresponds exactly to that derived using the small-angle calculation. This differs from the classic inverse-tangent definition by about 200 km, i.e. only after the 11th significant figure. As the astronomical unit was defined by the IAU (2012) as an exact SI length in metres, so now the parsec corresponds to an exact SI length in metres. To the nearest meter, the small-angle parsec corresponds to 30,856,775,814,913,673 m.