James Lindenschmidt

Parallax is the apparent change of an observed object's position caused by a shift in the observer's position. As an example, hold your hand in front of you at arm's length, and observe an object on the other side of the room behind your hand. Now tilt your head to your right shoulder, and your hand will appear on the left side of the distant object. Tilt your head to your left shoulder, and your hand will appear to shift to the right side of the distant object.

Because the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, we observe the sky from a constantly moving position in space. Therefore, we should expect to see an annual parallax effect, in which the positions of nearby objects appear to wobble back and forth in response to our motion around the Sun. This does in fact happen, but the distances to even the nearest stars are so great that you need to make careful observations with a telescope to detect it[2].

Modern telescopes allow astronomers to use the annual parallax to measure the distance to nearby stars, using triangulation. The astronomer carefully measures the position of the star on two dates, spaced six months apart. The nearer the star is to the Sun, the larger the apparent shift in its position will be between the two dates.

Over the six-month period, the Earth has moved through half its orbit around the Sun; in this time its position has changed by 2 Astronomical Units (abbreviated AU; 1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, or about 150 million kilometers). This sounds like a really long distance, but even the nearest star to the Sun (alpha Centauri) is about 40 trillion kilometers away. Therefore, the annual parallax is very small, typically smaller than one arcsecond, which is only 1/3600 of one degree. A convenient distance unit for nearby stars is the parsec, which is short for "parallax arcsecond". One parsec is the distance a star would have if its observed parallax angle was one arcsecond. It is equal to 3.26 light-years, or 31 trillion kilometers[3].

[2] The ancient Greek astronomers knew about parallax; because they could not observe an annual parallax in the positions of stars, they concluded that the Earth could not be in motion around the Sun. What they did not realize was that the stars are millions of times further away than the Sun, so the parallax effect is impossible to see with the unaided eye.

[3] Astronomers like this unit so much that they now use kiloparsecs to measure galaxy-scale distances, and Megaparsecs to measure intergalactic distances, even though these distances are much too large to have an actual, observable parallax. Other methods are required to determine these distances