If you’ve been following developments in astronomy over the last few years, you may have heard about the so-called “crisis in cosmology,” which has astronomers wondering whether there might be something wrong with our current understanding of the Universe. This crisis revolves around the rate at which the Universe expands: measurements of the expansion rate in the present Universe don’t line up with measurements of the expansion rate during the early Universe. With no indication for why these measurements might disagree, astronomers are at a loss to explain the disparity.
The first step in solving this mystery is to try out new methods of measuring the expansion rate. In a paper published last week, researchers at University College London (UCL) suggested that we might be able to create a new, independent measure of the expansion rate of the Universe by observing black hole-neutron star collisions.
In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble made the groundbreaking discovery that the Universe was in a state of expansion. Originally predicted as a consequence of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, measurements of this expansion came to be known as Hubble’s Constant. Today, and with the help of next-generation telescopes – like the aptly-named Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – astronomers have remeasured and revised this law many times.
These measurements confirmed that the rate of expansion has increased over time, though scientists are still unsure why. The latest measurements were conducted by an international team using Hubble, who then compared their results with data obtained by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia observatory. This has led to the most precise measurements of the Hubble Constant to date, though questions about cosmic acceleration remain.
Since 2005, Adam Riess – a Nobel Laureate Professor with the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University – has been working to refine the Hubble Constant value by streamlining and strengthening the “cosmic distance ladder”. Along with his team, known as Supernova H0 for the Equation of State (SH0ES), they have successfully reduced the uncertainty associated with the rate of cosmic expansion to just 2.2%
To break it down, astronomers have traditionally used the “cosmic distance ladder” to measure distances in the Universe. This consists of relying on distance markers like Cepheid variables in distant galaxies – pulsating stars whose distances can be inferred by comparing their intrinsic brightness with their apparent brightness. These measurements are then compared to the way light from distant galaxies is redshifted to determine how fast the space between galaxies is expanding.
From this, the Hubble Constant is derived. Another method that is used is to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to trace the expansion of the cosmos during the early Universe – circa. 378,000 years after the Big Bang – and then using physics to extrapolate that to the present expansion rate. Together, the measurements should provide an end-to-end measurement of how the Universe has expanded over time.
However, astronomers have known for some time that the two measurements don’t match up. In a previous study, Riess and his team conducted measurements using Hubble to obtain a Hubble Constant value of 73 km/s (45.36 mps) per megaparsec (3.3 million light-years). Meanwhile, results based on the ESA’ Planck observatory (which observed the CMB between 2009 and 2013) predicted that the Hubble constant value should now be 67 km/s (41.63 mps) per megaparsec and no higher than 69 km/s (42.87 mps) – which represents a discrepancy of 9%.
“The tension seems to have grown into a full-blown incompatibility between our views of the early and late time universe. At this point, clearly it’s not simply some gross error in any one measurement. It’s as though you predicted how tall a child would become from a growth chart and then found the adult he or she became greatly exceeded the prediction. We are very perplexed.”
In this case, Riess and his colleagues used Hubble to gauge the brightness of distant Cepheid variables while Gaia provided the parallax information – the apparent change in an objects position based on different points of view – needed to determine the distance. Gaia also added to the study by measuring the distance to 50 Cepheid variables in the Milky Way, which were combined with brightness measurements from Hubble.
This allowed the astronomers to more accurately calibrate the Cepheids and then use those seen outside the Milky Way as milepost markers. Using both the Hubble measurements and newly released data from Gaia, Riess and his colleagues were able to refine their measurements on the present rate of expansion to 73.5 kilometers (45.6 miles) per second per megaparsec.
As Stefano Casertano, of the Space Telescope Science Institute and a member of the SHOES team, added:
“Hubble is really amazing as a general-purpose observatory, but Gaia is the new gold standard for calibrating distance. It is purpose-built for measuring parallax—this is what it was designed to do. Gaia brings a new ability to recalibrate all past distance measures, and it seems to confirm our previous work. We get the same answer for the Hubble constant if we replace all previous calibrations of the distance ladder with just the Gaia parallaxes. It’s a crosscheck between two very powerful and precise observatories.”
Looking to the future, Riess and his team hope to continue to work with Gaia so they can reduce the uncertainty associated with the value of the Hubble Constant to just 1% by the early 2020s. In the meantime, the discrepancy between modern rates of expansion and those based on the CMB will continue to be a puzzle to astronomers.
In the end, this may be an indication that other physics are at work in our Universe, that dark matter interacts with normal matter in a way that is different than what scientists suspect, or that dark energy could be even more exotic than previously thought. Whatever the cause, it is clear the Universe still has some surprises in store for us!
In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble made the groundbreaking revelation that the Universe was in a state of expansion. Originally predicted as a consequence of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this confirmation led to what came to be known as Hubble’s Constant. In the ensuring decades, and thanks to the deployment of next-generation telescopes – like the aptly-named Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – scientists have been forced to revise this law.
In short, in the past few decades, the ability to see farther into space (and deeper into time) has allowed astronomers to make more accurate measurements about how rapidly the early Universe expanded. And thanks to a new survey performed using Hubble, an international team of astronomers has been able to conduct the most precise measurements of the expansion rate of the Universe to date.
This tool is how astronomers have traditionally measured distances in the Universe, which consists of relying on distance markers like Cepheid variables – pulsating stars whose distances can be inferred by comparing their intrinsic brightness with their apparent brightness. These measurements are then compared to the way light from distance galaxies is redshifted to determine how fast the space between galaxies is expanding.
From this, the Hubble Constant is derived. To build their distant ladder, Riess and his team conducted parallax measurements using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) of eight newly-analyzed Cepheid variable stars in the Milky Way. These stars are about 10 times farther away than any studied previously – between 6,000 and 12,000 light-year from Earth – and pulsate at longer intervals.
To ensure accuracy that would account for the wobbles of these stars, the team also developed a new method where Hubble would measure a star’s position a thousand times a minute every six months for four years. The team then compared the brightness of these eight stars with more distant Cepheids to ensure that they could calculate the distances to other galaxies with more precision.
Using the new technique, Hubble was able to capture the change in position of these stars relative to others, which simplified things immensely. As Riess explained in a NASA press release:
“This method allows for repeated opportunities to measure the extremely tiny displacements due to parallax. You’re measuring the separation between two stars, not just in one place on the camera, but over and over thousands of times, reducing the errors in measurement.”
Compared to previous surveys, the team was able to extend the number of stars analyzed to distances up to 10 times farther. However, their results also contradicted those obtained by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck satellite, which has been measuring the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation created by the Big Bang – since it was deployed in 2009.
By mapping the CMB, Planck has been able to trace the expansion of the cosmos during the early Universe – circa. 378,000 years after the Big Bang. Planck’s result predicted that the Hubble constant value should now be 67 kilometers per second per megaparsec (3.3 million light-years), and could be no higher than 69 kilometers per second per megaparsec.
Based on their sruvey, Riess’s team obtained a value of 73 kilometers per second per megaparsec, a discrepancy of 9%. Essentially, their results indicate that galaxies are moving at a faster rate than that implied by observations of the early Universe. Because the Hubble data was so precise, astronomers cannot dismiss the gap between the two results as errors in any single measurement or method. As Reiss explained:
“The community is really grappling with understanding the meaning of this discrepancy… Both results have been tested multiple ways, so barring a series of unrelated mistakes. it is increasingly likely that this is not a bug but a feature of the universe.”
These latest results therefore suggest that some previously unknown force or some new physics might be at work in the Universe. In terms of explanations, Reiss and his team have offered three possibilities, all of which have to do with the 95% of the Universe that we cannot see (i.e. dark matter and dark energy). In 2011, Reiss and two other scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1998 discovery that the Universe was in an accelerated rate of expansion.
Consistent with that, they suggest that Dark Energy could be pushing galaxies apart with increasing strength. Another possibility is that there is an undiscovered subatomic particle out there that is similar to a neutrino, but interacts with normal matter by gravity instead of subatomic forces. These “sterile neutrinos” would travel at close to the speed of light and could collectively be known as “dark radiation”.
Any of these possibilities would mean that the contents of the early Universe were different, thus forcing a rethink of our cosmological models. At present, Riess and colleagues don’t have any answers, but plan to continue fine-tuning their measurements. So far, the SHoES team has decreased the uncertainty of the Hubble Constant to 2.3%.
This is in keeping with one of the central goals of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was to help reduce the uncertainty value in Hubble’s Constant, for which estimates once varied by a factor of 2.
So while this discrepancy opens the door to new and challenging questions, it also reduces our uncertainty substantially when it comes to measuring the Universe. Ultimately, this will improve our understanding of how the Universe evolved after it was created in a fiery cataclysm 13.8 billion years ago.
Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the King of Ethiopia himself, the Cepheus constellation!
In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.
In Greek mythology, Cepheus represents the mythical king of Aethiopia – and husband to the vain queen Cassiopeia. This also makes him the father of the lovely Andromeda, and a member of the entire sky saga which involves jealous gods and mortal boasts. According to this myth, Zeus placed Cepheus in the sky after his tragic death, which resulted from a jealous lovers’ spat.
It began when Cepheus’ wife – Cassiopeia – boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids (the sea nymphs), which angered the nymphs and Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon sent a sea monster, represented by the constellation Cetus, to ravage Cepheus’ land. To avoid catastrophe, Cepheus tried to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Cetus; but she was saved by the hero Perseus, who also slew the monster.
The two were to be married, but this created conflict since Andromeda had already been promised to Cepheus brother, Phineus. A fight ensued, and Perseus was forced to brandish the head of Medusa to defeat his enemies, which caused Cepheus and Cassiopeia (who did not look away in time) to turn to stone. Perhaps his part in the whole drama is why his crown only appears to be seen in the fainter stars when he’s upside down?
History of Observation:
As one of the 48 fabled constellations from Greek mythology, Cepheus was included by Ptolemy in his 2nd century tract, The Almagest. In 1922, it was included in the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
Bordered by Cygnus, Lacerta and Cassiopeia, it contains only one bright star, but seven major stars and 43 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It’s brightest star, Alpha Cephei, is a white class A star, which is located about 48 light years away. Its traditional name (Alderamin) is derived from the Arabic “al-dira al-yamin“, which means “the right arm”.
Next is Beta Cephei, a triple star systems that is approximately 690 light years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, Alfirk, is derived from the Arabic “al-firqah” (“the flock”). The brightest component in this system, Alfirk A, is a blue giant star (B2IIIev), which indicates that it is a variable star. In fact, this star is a prototype for Beta Cephei variables – main sequence stars that show variations in brightness as a result of pulsations of their surfaces.
Then there’s Delta Cephei, which is located approximately 891 light years from the Solar System. This star also serves as a prototype for Cepheid variables, where pulsations on its surface are directly linked to changes in luminosity. The brighter component of the binary is classified as a yellow-white F-class supergiant, while its companion is believed to be a B-class star.
Gamma Cephei is another binary star in Cepheus, which is located approximately 45 light years away. The star’s traditional name is Alrai (Er Rai or Errai), which is derived from the Arabic ar-r?‘?, which means “the shepherd.” Gamma Cephei is an orange subgiant (K1III-IV) that can be seen by the naked eye, and its companion has about 0.409 solar masses and is thought to be an M4 class red dwarf.
Cepheus is also home to many notable Deep Sky Objects. For example, there’s NGC 6946, which is sometimes called the Fireworks Galaxy because of its supernovae rate and high volume of star formation. This intermediate spiral galaxy is located approximately 22 million light years distant. The galaxy was discovered by William Herschel in September 1798, and nine supernovae have been observed in it over the last century.
Next up is the Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380), an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. The cluster is embedded in a nebula that is about 110 light years in size and roughly 7,000 light years from our Solar System. It is also a relatively young open cluster, as its stars are estimated to be less than 500 million years old.
Then there’s the Iris Nebula (NGC 7023), a reflection nebula with an apparent magnitude of 6.8 that is approximately 1,300 light years distant. The object is so-named because it is actually a star cluster embedded inside a nebula. The nebula is lit by the star SAO 19158 and it lies close to two relatively bright stars – T Cephei, which is a Mira type variable, and Beta Cephei.
Discovered by Sir William Herschel on October 18, 1794, Herschel made the correct assumption of, “A star of 7th magnitude. Affected with nebulosity which more than fills the field. It seems to extend to at least a degree all around: (fainter) stars such as 9th or 10th magnitude, of which there are many, are perfectly free from this appearance.”
So where did the confusion come in? It happened in 1931 when Per Collinder decided to list the stars around it as a star cluster Collinder 429. Then along came Mr. van den Berg, and the little nebula became known as van den Berg 139. Then the whole group became known as Caldwell 4! So what’s right and what isn’t?
According to Brent Archinal, “I was surprised to find NGC 7023 listed in my catalog as a star cluster. I assumed immediately the Caldwell Catalog was in error, but further checking showed I was wrong! The Caldwell Catalog may be the only modern catalog to get the type correctly!”
Cepheus is a circumpolar constellation of the northern hemisphere and is easily seen at visible at latitudes between +90° and -10° and best seen during culmination during the month of November. For the unaided eye observer, start first with Cepheus’ brightest star – Alpha. It’s name is Alderamin and it’s going through stellar evolution – moving off the main sequence into a subgiant, and on its way to becoming a red giant as its hydrogen supply depletes.
What’s very cool is Alderamin is located near the precessional path traced across the celestial sphere by the Earth’s north pole. That means that periodically this star comes within 3° of being a pole star! Keeping that in mind, head off for Gamma Cephei. Guess what? Due to the precession of the equinoxes, Errai will become our northern pole star around 3000 AD and will make its closest approach around 4000 AD. (Don’t wait up, though… It will be late).
However, you can stay up late enough with a telescope or binoculars to have a closer look at Errai, because its an orange subgiant binary star that’s also about to go off the main sequence and its accompanied by a red dwarf star. What’s so special about that? Well, maybe because a planet has been discovered floating around there, too!
Now let’s have some fun with a Cepheid variable star that changes enough in about 5 days to make watching it fun! You’ll find Delta on the map as the figure 8 symbol and in the sky you’ll find it 891 light-years away. Delta Cephei is binary star system and the prototype of the Cepheid variable stars – the closest of its type to the Sun.
This star pulses every 5.36634 days, causing its stellar magnitude to vary from 3.6 to 4.3. But that’s not all! Its spectral type varies, too – going from F5 to G3. Try watching it over a period of several nights. Its rise to brightness is much faster than its decline! With a telescope, you will be able to see a companion star separated from Delta Cephei by 41 arc seconds.
Are you ready to examine two red supergiant stars? If you live in a dark sky area, you can see these unaided, but they are much nicer in binoculars. The first is Mu Cephei – aka. Herschel’s Garnet Star. In his 1783 notes, Sir William Herschel wrote: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star omicron ceti” and the name stuck when Giuseppe Piazzi included the description in his catalog.
Now compare it to VV Cephi, right smack in the middle of the map. VV is absolutely a supergiant star, and it is of the largest stars known. In fact, VV Cephei is believed to be the third largest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy! VV Cephei is 275,000-575,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is approximately 1,600–1,900 times the Sun’s diameter.
If placed in our solar system, the binary system would extend past the orbit of Jupiter and approach that of Saturn. Some 3,000 light years away from Earth, matter continuously flows off this bad boy and into its blue companion. Stellar wind flows off the system at a velocity of approximately 25 kilometers per second. And some body’s Roche lobe gets filled!
For some rich field telescope and binocular fun from a dark sky site, try your luck with IC1396. This 3 degree field of nebulosity can even be seen unaided at times! Inside you’ll find an open star cluster (hence the designation) and photographically the whole area is criss-crossed with dark nebulae.
For a telescope challenge, see if you can locate both Spiral galaxy NGC 6946 – aka. the Fireworks Nebula – and galactic cluster NGC 6939 about 2 degrees southwest of Eta Cepheus. About 40 arc minutes northwest of NGC 6946 – is about 8th magnitude, well compressed and contains about 80 stars.
More? Then try NGC 7023 – The Iris Nebula. This faint nebula can be achieved in dark skies with a 114-150mm telescope, but larger aperture will help reveal more subtle details since it has a lower surface brightness. Take the time at lower power to reveal the dark dust “lacuna” around it reported so many years ago, and to enjoy the true beauty of this Caldwell gem.
Still more? Then head off with your telescope for IC1470 – but take your CCD camera. IC1470 is a compact H II region excited by a single O7 star associated with an extensive molecular cloud in the Perseus arm!
Yes, Cepheus has plenty of viewing opportunities for the amateur astronomer. And for thousands of years, it has proven to be a source of fascination for scholars and astronomers.
The Universe is a really, really big place. We’re talking… imperceptibly big! In fact, based on decades worth of observations, astronomers now believe that the observable Universe measures about 46 billion light years across. The key word there is observable, because when you take into account that which we cannot see, scientists think it’s actually more like 92 billion light years across.
The hardest part in all of this is making accurate measurements of the distances involved. But since the birth of modern astronomy, increasingly accurate methods have evolved. Aside from redshift and examining the light coming from distant stars and galaxies, astronomers also rely on a class of stars known as Cepheid Variables (CVs) to determine the distance of objects within and beyond our Galaxy.
Variable stars are essentially stars that experience fluctuations in their brightness (aka. absolute luminosity). Cepheids Variables are special type of variable star in that they are hot and massive – five to twenty times as much mass as our Sun – and are known for their tendency to pulsate radially and vary in both diameter and temperature.
What’s more, these pulsations are directly related to their absolute luminosity, which occurs within well-defined and predictable time periods (ranging from 1 to 100 days). When plotted as a magnitude vs. period relationship, the shape of the Cephiad luminosity curve resembles that of a “shark fin” – do its sudden rise and peak, followed by a steadier decline.
The name is derived from Delta Cephei, a variable star in the Cepheus constellation that was the first CV to be identified. Analysis of this star’s spectrum suggests that CVs also undergo changes in terms of temperature (between 5500 – 66oo K) and diameter (~15%) during a pulsation period.
Use in Astronomy:
The relationship between the period of variability and the luminosity of CV stars makes them very useful in determining the distance of objects in our Universe. Once the period is measured, the luminosity can be determined, thus yielding accurate estimates of the star’s distance using distance modulus equation.
This equation states that: m – M = 5 log d – 5 – where m is the apparent magnitude of the object, M is the absolute magnitude of the object, and d is the distance to the object in parsecs. Cepheid variables can be seen and measured to a distance of about 20 million light years, compared to a maximum distance of about 65 light years for Earth-based parallax measurements and just over 326 light years for the ESA’s Hipparcos mission.
Because they are bright, and can be clearly seen million of light years away, they can be easily distinguished from other bright stars in their vicinity. Combined with the relationship between their variability and luminosity, this makes them highly useful tools in deducing the size and scale of our Universe.
Cepheid variables are divided into two subclasses – Classical Cepheids and Type II Cepheids – based on differences in their masses, ages, and evolutionary histories. Classical Cepheids are Population I (metal-rich) variable stars that are 4-20 times more massive than the Sun and up to 100,000 times more luminous. They undergo pulsations with very regular periods on the order of days to months.
These Cepheids are typically yellow bright giants and supergiants (spectral class F6 – K2) and they experience radius changes in the millions of kilometers during a pulsation cycle. Classical Cepheids are used to determine distances to galaxies within the Local Group and beyond, and are a means by which the Hubble Constant can be established (see below).
Type II Cepheids are Population II (metal-poor) variable stars which pulsate with periods of typically between 1 and 50 days. Type II Cepheids are also older stars (~10 billion years) that have around half the mass of our Sun.
Type II Cepheids are also subdivided based on their period into the BL Her, W Virginis, and RV Tauri subclasses (named after specific examples) – which have periods of 1-4 days, 10-20 days, and more than 20 days, respectively. Type II Cepheids are used to establish the distance to the Galactic Center, globular clusters, and neighboring galaxies.
There are also those that do not fit into either category, which are known as Anomalous Cepheids. These variables have periods of less than 2 days (similar to RR Lyrae) but have higher luminosities. They also have higher masses than Type II Cepheids, and have unknown ages.
A small proportion of Cepheid variables have also been observed which pulsate in two modes at the same time, hence the name Double-mode Cepheids. A very small number pulsate in three modes, or an unusual combination of modes.
History of Observation:
The first Cepheid variable to be discovered was Eta Aquilae, which was observed on September 10th, 1784, by English astronomer Edward Pigott. Delta Cephei, for which this class of star is named, was discovered a few months later by amateur English astronomer John Goodricke.
In 1908, during an investigation of variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds, American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered the relationship between the period and luminosity of Classical Cepheids. After recording the periods of 25 different variables stars, she published her findings in 1912.
In the following years, several more astronomers would conduct research on Cepheids. By 1925, Edwin Hubble was able to establish the distance between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy based on Cepheid variables within the latter. These findings were pivotal, in that they settled the Great Debate, where astronomers sought to established whether or not the Milky Way was unique, or one of many galaxies in the Universe.
By gauging the distance between the Milky Way and several other galaxies, and combining it with Vesto Slipher’s measurements of their redshift, Hubble and Milton L. Humason were able to formulate Hubble’s Law. In short, they were able to prove that the Universe is in a state of expansion, something that had been suggested years prior.
Further developments during the 20th century included dividing Cepheids into different classes, which helped resolve issues in determining astronomical distances. This was done largely by Walter Baade, who in the 1940s recognized the difference between Classical and Type II Cepheids based on their size, age and luminosities.
Despite their value in determining astronomical distances, there are some limitations with this method. Chief among them is the fact that with Type II Cepheids, the relationship between period and luminosity can be effected by their lower metallicity, photometric contamination, and the changing and unknown effect that gas and dust have on the light they emit (stellar extinction).
These unresolved issues have resulted in different values being cited for Hubble’s Constant – which range between 60 km/s per 1 million parsecs (Mpc) and 80 km/s/Mpc. Resolving this discrepancy is one of the largest problems in modern cosmology, since the true size and rate of expansion of the Universe are linked.
However, improvements in instrumentation and methodology are increasing the accuracy with which Cepheid Variables are observed. In time, it is hoped that observations of these curious and unique stars will yield truly accurate values, thus removing a key source of doubt about our understanding of the Universe.
This star is X light-years away, that galaxy is X million light-years away. That beginning the Universe is X billion light-years away. But how do astronomers know?
I’m perpetually in a state where I’m talking about objects which are unimaginably far away. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine how huge some our Universe is. Our brains can comprehend the distances around us, sort of, especially when we’ve got a pile of tools to help. We can measure our height with a tape measure, or the distance along the ground using an odometer. We can get a feel for how far away 100 kilometers is because we can drive it in a pretty short period of time.
But space is really big, and for most of us, our brains can’t comprehend the full awesomeness of the cosmos, let alone measure it. So how do astronomers figure out how far away everything is? How do they know how far away planets, stars, galaxies, and even the edge of the observable Universe is? Assuming it’s all trickery? You’re bang on.
Astronomers have a bag of remarkably clever tricks and techniques to measure distance in the Universe. For them, different distances require a different methodologies. Up close, they use trigonometry, using differences in angles to puzzle out distances. They also use a variety of standard candles, those are bright objects that generate a consistent amount of light, so you can tell how far away they are. At the furthest distances, astronomers use expansion of space itself to detect distances.
Fortunately, each of these methods overlap. So you can use trigonometry to test out the closest standard candles. And you can use the most distant standard candles to verify the biggest tools. Around our Solar System, and in our neighborhood of the galaxy, astronomers use trigonometry to discover the distance to objects.
They measure the location of a star in the sky at one point of the year, and then measure again 6 months later when the Earth is on the opposite side of the Solar System. The star will have moved a tiny amount in the sky, known as parallax. Because we know the distance from one side of the Earth’s orbit to the other, we can calculate the angles, and compute the distance to the star.
I’m sure you can spot the flaw, this method falls apart when the distance is so great that the star doesn’t appear to move at all. Fortunately, astronomers shift to a different method, observing a standard candle known as a Cepheid variable. These Cepheids are special stars that dim and brighten in a known pattern. If you can measure how quickly a Cepheid pulses, you can calculate its true luminosity, and therefore its distance.
Cepheids let you measure distances to nearby galaxies. Out beyond a few dozen megaparsecs, you need another tool: supernovae. In a very special type of binary star system, one star dies and becomes a white dwarf, while the other star lives on. The white dwarf begins to feed material off the partner star until it hits exactly 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. At this point, it detonates as a Type 1A supernova, generating an explosion that can be seen halfway across the Universe. Because these stars always explode with exactly the same amount of material, we can detect how far away they are, and therefore their absolute brightness.
At the greatest scales, astronomers use the Hubble Constant. This is the discovery by Edwin Hubble that the Universe is expanding in all directions. The further you look, the faster galaxies are speeding away from us. By measuring the redshift of light from a galaxy, you can tell how fast it’s moving away from us, and thus its approximate distance. At the very end of this scale is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the edge of the observable Universe, and the limit of how far we can see.
Astronomers are always looking for new types of standard candles, and have discovered all kinds of clever ways to measure distance. They measure the clustering of galaxies, beams of microwave radiation from stars, and the surface of red giant stars – all in the hopes of verifying the cosmic distance ladder. Measuring distance has been one of the toughest problems for astronomers to crack and their solutions have been absolutely ingenious. Thanks to them, we can have a sense of scale for the cosmos around us.
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A new kind of variable star — 36 of that type, in fact — has been found in a single star cluster. Astronomers don’t even have a name for the star type yet, but feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments!
For now, however, astronomers are wondering what the implications are for our understanding of the stellar interiors.
“The very existence of this new class of variable stars is a challenge to astrophysicists,” stated Sophie Saesen, an astronomer at Geneva Observatory who participated in the research.
“Current theoretical models predict that their light is not supposed to vary periodically at all, so our current efforts are focused on finding out more about the behaviour of this strange new type of star.”
The head-scratching began when astronomers used a European Southern Observatory telescope to gaze at the “Pearl Cluster” (NGC 3766), an open star cluster about 5,800 light years from Earth.
Over seven years of observations with the Leonhard Euler Telescope (taking periodic measurements of brightness), astronomers spotted 36 stars with variable periods of between 2 and 20 hours.
Variable stars have been known for centuries, and many of them are tracked by amateur organizations such as the American Association of Variable Observers. As best as astronomers can figure, the stars become brighter and dimmer due to changes on the inside — stellar vibrations or “quakes” studied under a field called asteroseismology.
A special type of variable stars, called Cepheid variables, can provide accurate measurements of distance since they have an established ratio between luminosity and the period of their variability.
Studying various types of variable stars has provided some insights.
“Asteroseismology of ß Cep[hei] stars, for example, has opened the doors in the past decade to study their interior rotation and convective core,” the astronomers stated in a paper on the research.
Despite the well-known nature of variable stars, few of them have been studied in open clusters such as NGC 3766.
The reason is it takes a lot of telescope time to take a look at the star — sometimes, years. And time with telescopes is both expensive and precious, making it difficult to allocate the time required.
“Stellar clusters are ideal environments to study stellar variability because some basic properties and the evolutionary status of individual star members can be derived from the properties of the cluster,” the astronomers stated.
“It, however, requires extensive monitoring on an as-long-as-possible time base line. This requirement may explain why not many clusters have been studied for their variability content so far, compared to the number of known and characterized clusters.”
These particular stars in NGC 3766, however, were puzzling.
“The stars are somewhat hotter and brighter than the Sun, but otherwise apparently unremarkable,” ESO stated, yet they had variations of about 0.1% of each star’s normal brightness.
It’s possible, but not proven yet, that perhaps the stars’ spin has something to do with the brightness.
Some of the observed objects whip around at speeds so fast that some material might be punted away from the star and into space, the astronomers wrote in a press release.
“In those conditions, the fast spin will have an important impact on their internal properties, but we are not able yet to adequately model their light variations,” stated Nami Mowlavi, another Geneva Observatory astronomer who led the paper.
Also, astronomers haven’t named this class of stars yet. Do you have any ideas? For more information and to generate suggestions, you can read the paper here in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Then you can leave your thoughts in the comments.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about a Cepheid variable star named V19 in M31. This Cepheid was one that once pulsated strongly and was one of the variables Hubble first used to find the distance to the Andromeda galaxy. But today, V19 is a rare instance of a Cepheid that has seemingly, stopped pulsating. Another example of this phenomenon is that of Polaris, which has decreased in the amplitude of brightnesses by nearly an order of magnitude in the past century, although some reports indicate that it may be beginning to increase again. Meanwhile, a new paper is looking to add another star, HDE 344787, to this rare category and according to the paper, it may be “even more interesting than Polaris”.
The star in question, HDE 344787, is a F class supergiant. Although the variations in brightness have been difficult to observe, due to their small amplitude, astronomers have revealed two fundamental pulsation modes corresponding to 5.4 days and 3.8 days. But perhaps even more interesting, is that the 5.4 day period seems to be growing. Careful analysis of the data suggests that this period is growing by about 13 seconds per year. This finding is in strong agreement with what is predicted by models of stellar evolution for stars with metallicity similar to the sun passing through the instability strip for the first time.
HDE 344787 is similar in Polaris in that both stars share the same spectral type. However, the existence of two modes of pulsation is not seen in Polaris. The lengthening of the period of pulsation, however, is seen. For Polaris, its variation is growing by 4.5 seconds per year. Another similarity is that, like Polaris and V19, has been decreasing in the amplitudes of its brightness since at least 1890.
While the addition of this star to the collection of Cepheids that have decreased their amplitude, it does little to solve the mystery of why they might do so. Currently, both Polaris and HDE 344787 lie near the middle of the instability strip and, as such, are not simply evolving out of the region of instability. However, the confirmation of second pulsational mode may lend support to the notion that a change in one of these modes may serve to dampen the other, creating an effect known as the Blazhko Effect.
Ultimately, this star will require further observations to understand its nature better. Due the the faintness of this star (~10th magnitude) as well as the small change in brightness from the pulsations and the dense stellar field on which it lies, observations have been notoriously challenging.
When Hubble first discovered a Cepheid variable in the galaxy M31, the universe grew. Previously, many astronomers had held that the fuzzy “spiral nebulae” were small patches of gas and dust within our own galaxy, but through the Period-Luminosity relationship which allowed him to determine the distance, Hubble demonstrated that these were “island universes”, or galaxies in their own right.
Soon after, Hubble (as well as other astronomers) began searching other fuzzy patches for Cepheids. Among them was the spiral galaxy M33 in which he discovered 35 Cepheids. Among them was V19 which had a 54.7 day period, an average magnitude of 19.59 ± 0.23 MB, and an amplitude of 1.1 magnitudes. But according to recent work revealed at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting, V19 no longer seems to be pulsating as a Cepheid.
The new research uses observations from the 3.5m Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, and NOAO (WIYN) Observatory as well as the 1.3m Robotically Controlled Telescope (RCT) operated jointly by a group of universities and research institutions. The new observations confirm a 2001 report that found V19 had decreased its brightness amplitude to at least less than 10% of the magnitude reported by Hubble in 1926, and possibly further as any fluctuations were below the threshold detectable by the instruments.
Now, if any variation exists, it is less than 0.1 magnitudes. The new study reports that there may be some small fluctuations, but due to inherent uncertainty in the observations, it barely exceeds the background noise and the announcers did not commit to these findings. Instead, they pledged to continue observations with larger instruments to the equation to push down the instrumental error as well as adding spectroscopic measurements to investigate other changes in the star. Another of the peculiar changes V19 has undergone is an increase of about half of a magnitude to 19.08 ± 0.05.
These changes are strikingly similar to another, more famous star: Polaris. Due to its much closer nature, observations have been much more frequent and with lower detection thresholds. This star had previously been reported to have an amplitude of 0.1 magnitudes which, according to a 2004 study, had decreased to 0.03 magnitudes. Additionally, based on ancient records, astronomers have estimated that Polaris has also brightened about a full magnitude in the past 2,000 years.
According to Edward Guinan of Villanova University and one of the members of the new observational team, “both stars are experiencing unexpectedly fast and large changes in their pulsation properties and brightness that are not yet explained by theory.”
The primary explanation for this dramatic change is simple evolution: As the stars have aged, they have moved out of the instability strip, a region on the HR diagram in which stars are prone to pulsations. But these stars may not be entirely lost from the family of periodic variables. In 2008, a study led by Hans Bruntt of the University of Sidney suggested that Polaris’ amplitude may be increasing. The team found that from 2003 to 2006, the scale of the oscillations had increased by 30%.
This has led other astronomers to suspect that there may be an additional effect in play in Cepheids known as the Blazhko Effect. This effect, often seen in RR Lyrae stars (another type of periodic variables), is a periodic variation of the variation. While no firm explanation exists for this effect, astronomers have suggested that it may be due to multiple pulsational modes that interfere constructively and destructively and occasionally forming resonances.
Ultimately, these strange changes in brightness are unexplained and will require astronomers to have to carefully monitor these stars, as well as other Cepheids to search for causes.
Cepheid variable stars – a class of stars that vary in brightness over time – have long been used to help measure distances in our local region of the Universe. Since their discovery in 1784 by Edward Pigott, further refinements have been made about the relationship between the period of their variability and their luminosity, and Cepheids have been closely studied and monitored by professional and amateur astronomers.
But as predictable as their periodic pulsations have become, a key aspect of Cepheid variables has never been well-understood: their mass. Two different theories – stellar evolution and stellar pulsation – have given different answers as to the masses that these stars should be. What has long been needed to correct this error was a system of eclipsing binary stars that contained a Cepheid, so that the orbital calculations could yield the mass of the star to a high degree of accuracy. Such a system has finally been discovered, and the mass of the Cepheid it contains has been calculated to within 1%, effectively ending a discrepancy that has persisted since the 1960s.
The system, named OGLE-LMC-CEP0227, contains a classical Cepheid variable (as opposed to a Type II Cepheid, which is of lower mass and takes a different evolutionary track) that varies over 3.8 days. It is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and as the stars orbit each other over a period of 310 days, they eclipse each other from our perspective on Earth. It was detected as part of the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, and you can see from the acronym soup that this yields the first part of the name, the Large Magellanic Cloud the second, and CEP stands for Cepheid.
A team of international astronomers headed by Grzegorz Pietrzynski of Universidad de Concepción, Chile and Obserwatorium Astronomiczne Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, Poland measured the spectra of the system using the MIKE spectrograph at the 6.5-m Magellan Clay telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and the HARPS spectrograph attached to the 3.6-m telescope of the European Southern Observatory at La Silla.
The team also measured the changes in brightness and slight red and blueshift of the light from the stars as they orbited each other, as well as the pulsing of the Cepheid. By taking all of these measurements, they were able to create a model of the masses of the stars that should yield the orbital mechanics of the system. In the end, the mass predicted by stellar pulsation theory agreed much more with the calculated mass than that predicted by stellar evolution theory. In other words, stellar pulsation theory FTW!!
They published their results today in a letter to Nature, and write in the conclusion of the letter: “The overestimation of Cepheid masses by stellar evolution theory may be the consequence of significant mass loss suffered by Cepheids during the pulsation phase of their lives – such loss could occur through radial motions and shocks in the atmosphere. The existence of mild internal core mixing in the main-sequence progenitor of the Cepheid, which would tend to decrease its evolutionary mass estimate, is another possible way to reconcile the evolutionary mass of Cepheids with their pulsation mass.”
Cepheid variables take their names from the star Delta Cephei (in the constellation Cepheus), which was discovered by John Goodricke to be a variable star a few months after Pigott’s discovery in 1784. There are many different types of variable stars, and if you are interested in learning more or even participating in observing and recording their variability, the American Association of Variable Star Observers has a wealth of information.