Aberration of light

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The aberration of light (also referred to as astronomical aberration or stellar aberration) is an astronomical phenomenon which produces an apparent motion of celestial objects about their real locations. It was discovered and later explained by the third Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, in 1725, who attributed it to the finite speed of light and the motion of Earth in its orbit around the Sun.[1]

At the instant of any observation of an object, the apparent position of the object is displaced from its true position by an amount which depends solely upon the transverse component of the velocity of the observer, with respect to the vector of the incoming beam of light (i.e., the line actually taken by the light on its path to the observer). The result is a tilting of the direction of the incoming light which is independent of the distance between object and observer.

In the case of an observer on Earth, the direction of a star's velocity varies during the year as Earth revolves around the Sun (or strictly speaking, the barycenter of the solar system), and this in turn causes the apparent position of the star to vary. This particular effect is known as annual aberration or stellar aberration, because it causes the apparent position of a star to vary periodically over the course of a year. The maximum amount of the aberrational displacement of a star is approximately 20 arcseconds in right ascension or declination. Although this is a relatively small value, it was well within the observational capability of the instruments available in the early eighteenth century.

Aberration should not be confused with stellar parallax, although it was an initially fruitless search for parallax that first led to its discovery.[1] Parallax is caused by a change in the position of the observer looking at a relatively nearby object, as measured against more distant objects, and is therefore dependent upon the distance between the observer and the object.[1]

In contrast, stellar aberration is independent of the distance of a celestial object from the observer, and depends only on the observer's instantaneous transverse velocity with respect to the incoming light beam, at the moment of observation. The light beam from a distant object cannot itself have any transverse velocity component, or it could not (by definition) be seen by the observer, since it would miss the observer. Thus, any transverse velocity of the emitting source plays no part in aberration. Another way to state this is that the emitting object may have a transverse velocity with respect to the observer, but any light beam emitted from it which reaches the observer, cannot, for it must have been previously emitted in such a direction that its transverse component has been "corrected" for. Such a beam must come "straight" to the observer along a line which connects the observer with the position of the object when it emitted the light.[1]

Aberration should also be distinguished from light-time correction, which is due to the motion of the observed object, like a planet, through space during the time taken by its light to reach an observer on Earth. Light-time correction depends upon the velocity and distance of the emitting object during the time it takes for its light to travel to Earth. Light-time correction does not depend on the motion of the Earth—it only depends on Earth's position at the instant when the light is observed. Aberration is usually larger than a planet's light-time correction except when the planet is near quadrature (90° from the Sun), where aberration drops to zero because then the Earth is directly approaching or receding from the planet. At opposition to or conjunction with the Sun, aberration is 20.5" while light-time correction varies from 4" for Mercury to 0.37" for Neptune (the Sun's light-time correction is less than 0.03").

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