Monday, June 05, 2006

Astronomical Data - Transmission, Acquisition, and Analysis - Intro

Although many people consider it to be one of the easier sciences out there, Astronomy poses its own unique challenges. One of the greatest among them is that, in most cases, direct experimentation is impossible. Even at the speed of light, it would take a little over 4 years to reach the nearest star. Even the furthest space probe we’ve ever launched (Voyager 1, launched in 1977), is only a “measly” 17 billion kilometers from Earth. At the speed of light, it would only take about 16 hours to go that far. Paltry compared to the 4 light years it would take to reach our nearest stellar neighbor.

Thus, by the very nature of these distances, astronomers can’t very well go to distant bodies to explore and study. Anything outside of our solar system is out of bounds for the time being. So instead of going to them, we sit back and let objects send us information.

Yet this seemingly laid back approach belies several questions that bear further exploration.

The first is: “what sort of information?” The second, “how to we receive it?” And lastly, “how do we interpret it?”

It is the answers to these three questions that I intend to explore for you in this, my next series of science minded posts. Hopefully this will enlighten you to how astronomers collect the data we need and how we can make the claims we do about places we’ve never been.

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