Rare Eclipsing Binary Stars Provide Refined Measurements in the Universe

Precise observations of a rare class of binary stars have now allowed a team of astronomers to improve the measurement of the distance to one of our neighboring galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud, and in the process, refine the Hubble Constant, an astronomical calculation that helps measure the expansion of the Universe. The astronomers say this is a crucial step towards understanding the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is causing the expansion to accelerate.

The team used telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, the Las Campanas Observatory also in Chile and two from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the Las Campanas Observatoryas well as others around the globe. These results appear in the 7 March 2013 issue of the journal Nature.

The new distance to the LMC is 163,000 light-years. The LMC is not the closest galaxy to the Milky Way; Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, discovered in 2003 is considered the actual nearest neighbor at 42,000 light-years from the Galactic Center, and the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy is about 50,000 light-years from the core of the Milky Way.

Astronomers ascertain the scale of the universe by first measuring the distances to close-by objects and then using them as standard candles — objects of known brightness — to pin down distances farther and farther out in the universe.

Up to now, finding an accurate distance to the LMC has proved elusive. Stars in that galaxy are used to fix the distance scale for more remote galaxies, so it is crucially important.

“This is a true milestone in modern astronomy. Because we know the distance to our nearest neighbor galaxy so precisely, we can now determine the rate at which the universe is expanding — the Hubble constant — with much better accuracy. This will allow us to investigate the physical nature of the enigmatic dark energy, the cause of the accelerated expansion of the universe,” says Dr. Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

“For extragalactic astronomers,” said Dr. Fabio Bresolin, also from UH, “the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud represents a fundamental yardstick with which the whole universe can be measured. Obtaining an accurate value for it has been a major challenge for generations of scientists. Our team has overcome the difficulties using an exquisitely accurate method, and is already working to cut the small remaining uncertainty by half in the next few years.”

The team worked out the distance to the LMC by observing rare close pairs of stars known as eclipsing binaries. As these stars orbit each other, they pass in front of each other. When this happens, as seen from Earth, the total brightness drops, both when one star passes in front of the other and, by a different amount, when it passes behind.

Read another recent article about studies that used eclipsing binaries to study the Light-travel-time Effect

By tracking these changes in brightness very carefully, and also measuring the stars’ orbital speeds, it is possible to work out how big the stars are, what their masses are, and other information about their orbits. When this is combined with careful measurements of the total brightness and colors of the stars, remarkably accurate distances can be found.

“Now we have solved this problem by demonstrably having a result accurate to 2%,” states Wolfgang Gieren (Universidad de Concepción, Chile) and one of the leaders of the team.

Sources: University of Hawaii, ESO

Astronomers Image Mysterious Dark Object That Eclipses Epsilon Aurigae

Epsilon Aurigae has baffled astronomers since the 1800’s, but new images are providing insight into this very unusual eclipsing binary star. While eclipsing binary stars aren’t unique in themselves, the way this star fades and then regains its brightness is inimitable and has not been fully understood, even after over 175 years of study. One theory has been that a large opaque disk seen nearly edge-on eclipses the primary star. The new images from an instrument developed at the University of Michigan appear to confirm that theory. “It kind of blows my mind that we could capture this,” said John Monnier from U-M. “There’s no other system like this known. On top of that, it seems to be in a rare phase of stellar life. And it happens to be so close to us. It’s extremely fortuitous.”

Epsilon Aurigae has a two-year-long eclipse that occurs every 27 years. The current eclipse started in August 2009 and amateur and professional astronomers have taken this opportunity to train as many telescopes on the event as possible.

Monnier led the development of the Michigan Infra-Red Combiner (MIRC) instrument, which uses interferometry to combine the light entering four telescopes at the CHARA array at Georgia State University and amplify it so that it seems to be coming through a device 100 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. MIRC allowed astronomers to “see” the eclipsing object for the first time.

The object that eclipses the primary star is dark — almost invisible — and is only seen as it passes in front of Epsilon Aurigae, the fifth brightest star in the northern constellation Auriga. Because astronomers hadn’t observed much light from it, one theory is the object was a stellar mass black hole. But the prevailing theory labeled it a smaller star orbited edge-on by a thick disk of dust. The theory held that the disk’s orbit must be in precisely the same plane as the dark object’s orbit around the brighter star, and all of this had to be occurring in the same plane as Earth’s vantage point. As unlikely as this alignment would be, it explained the observations.

The new images show that this is indeed the case. A geometrically thin, dark, dense, but partially translucent cloud can be seen passing in front of Epsilon Aurigae.

“This really shows that the basic paradigm was right, despite the slim probability,” Monnier said, and the disk appears much flatter than recent modeling from the Spitzer Space Telescope suggests. “It’s really flat as a pancake,” he said.
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While the “movie” of the disk passing in front of the star looks eerily like Saturn’s rings, Monnier doesn’t think the object is like a ring system.

“Ring systems are generally (always) quite sparsely populated and not optically thick,” Monnier said in an email to Universe Today. “Also ring systems have virtually no gas and settle into *extremely* thin layers. Both of these facts make it highly unlikley that the dust Eps Aur is in a “ring” because it wouldn’t be able to completely absorb so much of the star light during eclipse. That said, we don’t know much about the distribution — there might be a bit of a central hole as indicated by brightening of the star during mid-eclipse seen in the past.”

As to why this object is so dark, Monnier said, “At this epoch we are seeing the back side that can’t do any reflecting. We would expect some light to scatter off at other times in the orbit and would be worth looking for but requires very high angular resolution and high dynamic range. Note that the disk is not completely dark — the infrared glow of the cool dust grains have been seen in the 1980s and most recently in a Spitzer space telescope paper by Hoard et al.” (See the paper, “Taming the Invisible Monster: System Parameter Constraints for Epsilon Aurigae from the Far-Ultraviolet to the Mid-Infrared.”

MIRC has also allowed astronomers to see the shape and surface characteristics of stars for the first time. Previously, stars were mere points of light even with the largest telescopes.

“Interferometry has made high resolution imaging of distant objects a reality,” said Fabien Baron, a post-doctoral researcher at U-M who helped with the imaging in this study. “It most probably will solve many mysteries but also raise many new questions.”

The new findings will be published in the April 8 edition of Nature. Researchers from the University of Denver and Georgia State University also contributed to the research.

Sources: EurekAlert, email exchange with John Monnier