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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the importance of defining a standard distance unit
  • Explain how the meter was originally defined and how it has changed over time
  • Discuss how radar is used to measure distances to the other members of the solar system

The first measures of distances were based on human dimensions—the inch as the distance between knuckles on the finger, or the yard as the span from the extended index finger to the nose of the British king. Later, the requirements of commerce led to some standardization of such units, but each nation tended to set up its own definitions. It was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that any real efforts were made to establish a uniform, international set of standards.

The metric system

One of the enduring legacies of the era of the French emperor Napoleon is the establishment of the metric system of units, officially adopted in France in 1799 and now used in most countries around the world. The fundamental metric unit of length is the meter , originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance along Earth’s surface from the equator to the pole. French astronomers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were pioneers in determining the dimensions of Earth, so it was logical to use their information as the foundation of the new system.

Practical problems exist with a definition expressed in terms of the size of Earth, since anyone wishing to determine the distance from one place to another can hardly be expected to go out and re-measure the planet. Therefore, an intermediate standard meter consisting of a bar of platinum-iridium metal was set up in Paris. In 1889, by international agreement, this bar was defined to be exactly one meter in length, and precise copies of the original meter bar were made to serve as standards for other nations.

Other units of length are derived from the meter . Thus, 1 kilometer (km) equals 1000 meters, 1 centimeter (cm) equals 1/100 meter, and so on. Even the old British and American units, such as the inch and the mile, are now defined in terms of the metric system.

Modern redefinitions of the meter

In 1960, the official definition of the meter was changed again. As a result of improved technology for generating spectral lines of precisely known wavelengths (see the chapter on Radiation and Spectra ), the meter was redefined to equal 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of a particular atomic transition in the element krypton-86. The advantage of this redefinition is that anyone with a suitably equipped laboratory can reproduce a standard meter, without reference to any particular metal bar.

In 1983, the meter was defined once more, this time in terms of the velocity of light. Light in a vacuum can travel a distance of one meter in 1/299,792,458.6 second. Today, therefore, light travel time provides our basic unit of length. Put another way, a distance of one light-second (the amount of space light covers in one second) is defined to be 299,792,458.6 meters. That’s almost 300 million meters that light covers in just one second; light really is very fast! We could just as well use the light-second as the fundamental unit of length, but for practical reasons (and to respect tradition), we have defined the meter as a small fraction of the light-second.

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
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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