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In astronomy we deal with distances on a scale you may never have thought about before, with numbers larger than any you may have encountered. We adopt two approaches that make dealing with astronomical numbers a little bit easier. First, we use a system for writing large and small numbers called scientific notation (or sometimes powers-of-ten notation ). This system is very appealing because it eliminates the many zeros that can seem overwhelming to the reader. In scientific notation, if you want to write a number such as 500,000,000, you express it as 5 × 10 8 . The small raised number after the 10, called an exponent , keeps track of the number of places we had to move the decimal point to the left to convert 500,000,000 to 5. If you are encountering this system for the first time or would like a refresher, we suggest you look at Appendix C and [link] for more information. The second way we try to keep numbers simple is to use a consistent set of units—the metric International System of Units, or SI (from the French Système International d’Unités ). The metric system is summarized in Appendix D (see [link] ).

A common unit astronomers use to describe distances in the universe is a light-year, which is the distance light travels during one year. Because light always travels at the same speed, and because its speed turns out to be the fastest possible speed in the universe, it makes a good standard for keeping track of distances. You might be confused because a “light-year” seems to imply that we are measuring time, but this mix-up of time and distance is common in everyday life as well. For example, when your friend asks where the movie theater is located, you might say “about 20 minutes from downtown.”

So, how many kilometers are there in a light-year? Light travels at the amazing pace of 3 × 10 5 kilometers per second (km/s), which makes a light-year 9.46 × 10 12 kilometers. You might think that such a large unit would reach the nearest star easily, but the stars are far more remote than our imaginations might lead us to believe. Even the nearest star is 4.3 light-years away—more than 40 trillion kilometers. Other stars visible to the unaided eye are hundreds to thousands of light-years away ( [link] ).

Orion nebula.

Photograph of the Orion Nebula. This image is dominated by large areas and bright swirls of glowing gas clouds, crisscrossed by dark bands of dust.
This beautiful cloud of cosmic raw material (gas and dust from which new stars and planets are being made) called the Orion Nebula is about 1400 light-years away. That’s a distance of roughly 1.34 × 10 16 kilometers—a pretty big number. The gas and dust in this region are illuminated by the intense light from a few extremely energetic adolescent stars. (credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team)

Scientific notation

In 2015, the richest human being on our planet had a net worth of $79.2 billion. Some might say this is an astronomical sum of money. Express this amount in scientific notation.

Solution

$79.2 billion can be written $79,200,000,000. Expressed in scientific notation it becomes $7.92 × 10 10 .

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Getting familiar with a light-year

How many kilometers are there in a light-year?

Solution

Light travels 3 × 10 5 km in 1 s. So, let’s calculate how far it goes in a year:

  • There are 60 (6 × 10 1 ) s in 1 min, and 6 × 10 1 min in 1 h.
  • Multiply these together and you find that there are 3.6 × 10 3 s/h.
  • Thus, light covers 3 × 10 5 km/s × 3.6 × 10 3 s/h = 1.08 × 10 9 km/h.
  • There are 24 or 2.4 × 10 1 h in a day, and 365.24 (3.65 × 10 2 ) days in 1 y.
  • The product of these two numbers is 8.77 × 10 3 h/y.
  • Multiplying this by 1.08 × 10 9 km/h gives 9.46 × 10 12 km/light-year.

That’s almost 10,000,000,000,000 km that light covers in a year. To help you imagine how long this distance is, we’ll mention that a string 1 light-year long could fit around the circumference of Earth 236 million times.

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Questions & Answers

why the dark side of moon never face us? because moon dont rotate? why tho
Rishabh Reply
im in 8th standard and my school teach us nothing about astronomy but i want to be an astronomer so i study from youtube and apps like this but sometimes i get language problems
Rishabh
dark**
Glory
side**
Glory
The Moon does actually rotate. It takes 27 days for the Moon to make a full rotation. Because it takes it so long and the Earth is rotating around the sun, it seems like the Moon is pretty much standing still. That's called "synchronous rotation".
steveh259
I ment to say "The Earth is orbiting around the sun"
steveh259
Tidal Locked.....
Adam
***svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4442
Collins
thats cool
Gospel
ya gives you a look at how the moon orbits around us too and a perspective of how fast we are going. also gives the moon phases for the year! enjoy 😁
Collins
yes you are absolutely correct, it just like something like the milk of heaven
Subhasish
the far side of the moon is not the dark side of the moon.
Shawn
what phases of the moon occurs when spring tide?
Florence Reply
the moon has a 28 day cycle. you can download a moon calander or follow the pattern and make your own calendar. 1st full moon of the year 21/22nd Jan, its also a blood moon and a wolf moon. if this info helps at all. 😊
Collins
***svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4442
Collins
How to determine the velocity of light?
PARTHIB Reply
using this formula c=1/√absolute permeability×absolute permittivity of free space i.e. c=1/√8.854×10^-12×4π×10^-7~3×10^8ms^-1
Vidyashankar
what is mean by Big Bang
block Reply
What it means by Big Bang is how the world was made and came in to exist
Glory
The Big Bang Is The Best Explanation For What We See Around Us, And For The Origin Of The Universe, All Our Evidence Points To The Big Bang Theory..... And Was Proposed By A Belgian Priest.....
Adam
if the big bang theory is really true than i would like to know what exploded and where did it came from and where did the energy came from and where come from for the matter to expand into amd where did the organization come from and where did the information come from.........
Gospel
Some say that on the otherside of the singularity was a black hole. They say that at the other end of all black holes is another universe. Hence the multiverse. It's all theoretical at this point but less than a 100 years ago people believed that there was only 1 galaxy in the universe. So why
Rafael
should there be only 1 universe?
Rafael
universe.
Rafael
is astronomy a hard subject to learn because i want to be an astronomer
FNAF Reply
No it not it just takes time and effort to learn
Glory
if your already interested/observing, your already an astronomer ! The more you look and read the more you'll learn.
Collins
I want to become a scientist but my knowledge is very low. How I can improve my knowledge?
Wwe
any form of science courses, there's free crash course channel on you tube. I've learned alot from this channel. covers most topics, science: biology chemistry physics, astronomy, ranges to anatomy, history and many many more. it's a never ending subject!
Collins
suggest a channel as a example
Wwe
CrashCourse is the name of the channel and there is a picture of an apple. look through their play lists. They will have other related channels they follow also.
Collins
thank you so much
Wwe
your very welcome
Collins
Why are they so far away that their light takes hundreds of millions of years to reach us on earth?
LadyCatTM Reply
what is comets , astroids ,
Sumit Reply
comets are broken pieces of dust frozen debris Asteroids are big soiled pieces of Ice that burst into flames when it in to earth's atmosphere
Glory
hi, I am yamini, I am in class 8 but very much interested in astronomy and go to NASA, what are the subjects in which I can master and lead to NASA.
yamini Reply
Hello Yamini, Im Ken and I'm avery intrested in joining the NASA too. Is nice to meet you.
Ken
very*
Ken
nice to meet u ken
yamini
What I know about the subjects is that you have to be a master on science and math, also if you know about aviation is better too
Ken
I read that the Russian language is very important, is not a requirement but it's like an extra point!
Ken
yeah like physics, chemistry and maths, they are my most favorite.
yamini
than you can go free of cost
Arush
Yes, That's right!
Ken
how
yamini
Oh! Free of cost?
Ken
hello yamini nice to meet you
Burak
wow from NASA ur so lucky
FNAF
hello yamini nice to meet you
block
what is time
Abdul Reply
Time is relative
mrunal
pls elaborate
sakshi
the clear defination.I know that.
Abdul
In planet mars there the life exits or not and is there water there
Eshwarsa Reply
see till now nothing can be found as u know that the curiosity rover has struck in mars
Maya
It has been proven that there are water molecules on Mars but not enough that most lifeforms could thrive upon.
Ariana
There are huge amounts of water in the ice caps and under the surface. The surface and chemistry indicate that Mars had cosiderable amounts of water on its surface in the past.
Julius
what is your opinion about the theory of Vedas about modern physics..
Manish Reply
i think in some ways vedas are also correct but not everytime
Maya
I agree
sakshi
hmm even I agree
Samuel
Is there any patened theory about time relativitg in growth and development?
donot Reply
some astronomer's says that there is no alien exist but why search for extra terrestrial intelligence center is established
Eshwarsa Reply
No One Knows That For Absolute Fact, The Universe Is Too Huge To Have Any Type Of Idea About What Exist In The Far Reaches Of Our Universe.....
Adam
Check Out The Drake Equation.....
Adam
their should be aliens as like ours there would be another planet
Maya
which could have existed life on it
Maya
adam i want to ask a question
Maya
can kepler 1st law be applied on all the planets of the universe
Maya
hello, anyone home?
Denise
guys listen we cannot ever find aliens because our technology is not that great.we don't know whether they exist or no because our universe is very large . Just for an example;even if we spot out aliens we cannot reach there because lot of time must have been passed and before us reaching there
Samuel
what if their species or existence might get vanished our have been extinct!! getting my point
Samuel
sjskskfhjkkktewqqw and try?
Lanika Reply
what is this ?
Samuel
hi I am Samuel from India mumbai
Samuel
nice to meet you
Samuel
thats my question, what is this?
penzias and wilson's a discovery of the cosmic microwave background is a nice example of scientific serendipity-something that is found by chance but turns out to have a positive outcome
Jacqueline Reply

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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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