|A unit of interstellar distance, defined as the distance light travels in a period of
one year. The speed of light is constant, at about 300,000 km per second:
a light year is very nearly 10 million million km. From an Earthbound perspective,
this is a vast distance - our entire Solar System, out to the orbit of Pluto, is only
one eight-hundredth of a light year across.
On an interstellar scale, though, a single light year is rather small. It covers
less than a quarter of the distance to our nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri.
Our entire Galaxy is 100,000 light years across or more.
Because a light year is directly related to the time light takes to travel
through space, it follows that we look out into the universe we also look back in time.
For example, in about the year 5,250 BCE, a star in the constellation of
Taurus exploded. That star was about 6,300 light years from Earth, meaning that the light
from the explosion took 6,300 years to cross the intervening space, and finally reached us
in the year 1054 CE; that was the date Earthbound observers finally saw the
explosion that created the Crab Nebula. This 'lag' is a consequence of the immense
distances between the stars - when we look up at the Crab Nebula today, we see it not
as it is now, but as it was in about 4,300 BCE.
Perhaps because of this, the term 'light year' is sometimes misused as a unit of time (in
expressions like 'light years ago' or 'light years into the future'). This is never
correct - a 'light year' is only ever used to measure distance.
In actual practice, astronomers normally prefer the parsec, a unit equivalent
about 3¼ light years, rather than the light year itself. Nevertheless, the light year
remains a useful conceptual unit. The term is sometimes rendered 'light-year' or 'lightyear',
and often abbreviated to 'ly' or 'l.y.'.
The light year has various derivative units, of which only three are come across with any
Others can be invented for specific uses, like the 'nano-light year' (94,605 km) or the
'light millennium' (a picturesque term for 1,000 light years), but these
are almost never encountered in practice. The smallest such unit possible would be the
'atto-light year', which would be just under one centimetre in length!
Seeing a Light Year: Alioth, the third star in the handle of the Plough or Big Dipper,
has a tiny faint neighbour, 78 Ursae Majoris. These two stars are almost exactly the
same distance from Earth (about 81 light years), and the angle between them
describes a distance close to one light year.