On April 7th, commands were sent to NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler telescope to eject the 1.3×1.7 metre lens cap so the unprecedented mission could begin its hunt for Earth-like alien worlds orbiting distant stars. However, one UK astronomer won’t be using the Kepler data to detect the faint transits of rocky exoplanets in front of their host stars. He’ll be using it to monitor the light from a special class of variable star, and through the extreme precision of Kepler’s optics he will be joining an international team of collaborators to redefine the size of the Universe…
Kepler is carrying the largest camera ever launched into space. The camera has 42 charge-coupled devices (CCDs) to monitor the very slight changes in star brightness as an exoplanet passes in front of its host star. Considering the fact that it is hoped Kepler will detect exoplanets a little larger than our planet (known as super-Earths), the instrument is extremely sensitive. It is for this reason that not only exoplanet hunters are interested in using Kepler’s sensitive eye.
Using Kepler data, Dr Alan Penny, a researcher at the University of St Andrews will be joining a 200-strong team of astronomers to analyse the light not emitted from exoplanet-harbouring stars, but from a smaller group of variable stars that fluctuate in brightness with striking regularity and precision. These stars are Cepheid variables, also known as “standard candles” as they can be relied upon for their strong correlation between period of variability and absolute luminosity. This means that no matter where Cepheids are observed in galaxies or clusters, astronomers can always deduce the distance from the Earth to the Cepheid with great precision. The only thing limiting astronomers is the precision that can be attained by instrumentation, so when Kepler left Earth, carrying the most advanced and sensitive camera ever to be taken into space, Penny and his collaborators jumped at the chance to use Kepler to refine the measurement of the Universe.
“While Kepler is doing its exciting planet-hunting, we will be using its extreme precision to resolve a possible problem with our measurement of the size of the Universe,” said Penny. “These variable stars known as ‘Cepheids’ form the base of a series of steps by which we measure the distance to distant galaxies and, through them, we can measure the size of the Universe.”
Current estimates place the size of the Universe at 93 billion light years across, but Penny believes Kepler observations of a small selection of Cepheids may change this value by a few percent. When precision observations of a very precise stellar period-brightness relationship, it’s nice to be able to use the most precise instrument you can lay your hands on. However, our understanding of the “standard candles” themselves is very poor, and small-scale, dynamic changes on the star itself can go unnoticed on the ground. Kepler should shed some light on gaps in our knowledge of Cepheids as well as give us the best-yet measurement of the scale of our Universe.
“These Cepheid stars which get brighter and fainter by some tens of percent every ten to a hundred days are mostly understood. But recently it has become clear that our theories of what happens in the outer layers of these stars which cause the variations in brightness do not totally agree with what we see. The exquisite accuracy of Kepler in measuring star brightness, one hundred times better than we can do from the ground, means we can get such good measurements that we should be able to match theory with observation. Resolving the issue may only change estimates of the size of the Universe by a small amount, but we won’t rest easy until the problem is solved.” — Dr Alan Penny