Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology

The Hipparcos Spacecraft

Updated Tuesday 1st June 2004

The spacecraft Hipparcos produced a range of staggering stereoscopic star maps, as Dr Alan Cooper explains

Hipparchus deserves to be called the first astronomer. Over many years between 146 and 127 BC he carefully logged and measured the positions of stars in a thoroughly scientific way, and was rewarded by discovering and measuring the precession of the Earth's axis. He was the first to have some understanding of spherical trigonometry, and for that alone claims the respect of students up to the present day! The European Space Agency (ESA) launched a spacecraft in 1989 with the sole aim of making the best star catalogue possible - what better name for it than Hipparcos?

The design of Hipparcos depends entirely on the advantages of being in space: it would not work on Earth. In the absence of atmospheric distortions, no telescope is needed. Hipparcos has a set of masks, rotating with a constant speed in the absence of friction. Its photometers record the times of appearance and disappearance of stars through these masks. Over many months the whole sky is covered, and many millions of timings recorded. A huge calculation identifies the stars (with reference to existing catalogues) and finds improved "least squares" estimates of their positions and luminosities. This is also the prelude to applying the method of parallax used by Bessel to estimate distances of the nearer stars - but the Hipparcos results reach out much further, surveying a substantial part of the Galaxy. The final results are available for anyone to use, in the form of a CD. For the layperson, the results for the brightest stars are available in a form which re-uses parallax. With the distance known, it is possible to calculate what the sky would look like if the separation of our eyes was not 65mm but 200,000 AU (or 100,000 times the diameter of the Earth's orbit). This is shown as a stereoscopic pair of images, one red and one green. Viewed through red/green spectacles, the Galaxy appears, truly for the first time on this planet, in full 3 dimensional depth. Stereoscopy, after all, is just parallax by another name.

This huge database has proved so useful that a new spacecraft, GAIA, is planned (for 2009) to reach ten times further than Hipparcos - about 1000 times as many stars. This is still within our Galaxy, and quite different methods (not directly AU based) are needed to get to other galaxies, and hence into the realm of cosmology.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?