Not Just Stars. Gaia Mapped a Diverse and Shifting Universe of Variable Objects

We’ve reported on Gaia’s incredible data-collection abilities in the past. Recently, it released DR3, its latest data set, with over 1.8 billion objects in it. That’s a lot of data to sift through, and one of the most effective ways to do so is through machine learning. A group of researchers did just that by using a supervised learning algorithm to classify a particular type of object found in the data set. The result is one of the world’s most comprehensive catalogs of the type of astronomical object known as variables.

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Two Stars Orbiting Each Other Every 51 Minutes. This Can’t End Well

An artist’s illustration shows a white dwarf (right) circling a larger, sun-like star (left) in an ultra-short orbit, forming a “cataclysmic” binary system. Credits:Credit: M.Weiss/Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

We don’t have to worry too much about our Sun. It can burn our skin, and it can emit potent doses of charged material—called Solar storms—that can damage electrical systems. But the Sun is alone up there, making things simpler and more predictable.

Other stars are locked in relationships with one another as binary pairs. A new study found a binary pair of stars that are so close to each other they orbit every 51 minutes, the shortest orbit ever seen in a binary system. Their proximity to one another spells trouble.

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Astronomers See a Star Crash Through the Planetary Disk of Another Star

Flash heating around the second star after it has crashed through the disc. FU Ori. Credit: Elisabeth Borchert.

What causes an otherwise unremarkable star to become over 100 times brighter? That’s a question astronomers have been pondering since 1936, when a star in Orion brightened from 16th magnitude to 8th magnitude in a single year.

The star, named FU Ori, is still bright to this day. Astronomers have come up with different explanations for the star’s brightening, but none of them provides a complete explanation.

Now we might have one.

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Nancy Grace Roman Telescope is Getting an Upgraded new Infrared Filter

NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is now named the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, after NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy. Credits: NASA

In 2025, the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope will launch to space. Named in honor of NASA’s first chief astronomer (and the “Mother of Hubble“), the Roman telescope will be the most advanced and powerful observatory ever deployed. With a camera as sensitive as its predecessors, and next-generation surveying capabilities, Roman will have the power of “One-Hundred Hubbles.”

In order to meet its scientific objectives and explore some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos, Roman will be fitted with a number of infrared filters. But with the decision to add a new near-infrared filter, Roman will exceed its original design and be able to explore 20% of the infrared Universe. This opens the door for exciting new research and discoveries, from the edge of the Solar System to the farthest reaches of space.

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TESS is Also Helping Astronomers Study Bizarre Pulsating Stars

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT
A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

NASA’s TESS, or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite has one main job: finding exoplanets. But it’s also helping astronomers study a strange type of star that has so far defied thorough explanation. Those stars are Delta Scuti stars, named after their prototype.

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What are Cepheid Variables?

Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team)

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: mM = 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.

Calibrated Period-luminosity Relationship for Cepheids
Calibrated Period-luminosity Relationship for Cepheids. Credit: NASA

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.

Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team)
Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis, one of the brightest known Cepheid variable stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/ ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

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.

We have written many interesting articles about Cepheid Variables here at Universe Today. Here’s Astronomers Find New Way to Measure Cosmic Distances, Astronomers Use Light Echo to Measure the Distance to a Star, and Astronomers Closing in on Dark Energy with Refined Hubble Constant.

Astronomy Cast has an interesting episode that explains the differences between Population I and II stars – Episode 75: Stellar Populations.


Messier 5 (M5) – The NGC 5904 Globular Cluster

The globular cluster Messier 5, one of the oldest belonging to the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

In the late 18th century, Charles Messier was busy hunting for comets in the night sky, and noticed several “nebulous” objects. After initially mistaking them for the comets he was seeking, he began to compile a list of these objects so other astronomers would not make the same mistake. Known as the Messier Catalog, this list consists of 100 objects, consisting of distant galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

Among the many famous objects in this catalog is the M5 globular star cluster (aka. NGC 5904). Located in the galactic halo within the Serpens Constellation, this cluster of stars is almost as old as the Universe itself (13 billion years)! Though very distant from Earth and hard to spot, it is a favorite amongst amateur astronomers who swear by its beauty.

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Challenge Yourself! See an Astronomical Event that Only Happens Once Every 26 Years

This artist’s impression shows an eclipsing binary star system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada.

Update: It’s off. This past weekend, the AAVSO issued Special Notice #395 calling off the campaign to observe Alpha Comae Berenices this month due to “position measurements published a century ago (which) contained errors that affected the predictions for the time of eclipse…”

And the mystery of Alpha Comae Berenices continues. Oh well. Such is the wiles and whims of the universe, and the exciting field of variable star observing!

A truly fascinating event may be in the offing this month.

Picture two distant burning embers (candles, light bulbs, LEDs, what have you) circling each other in the distance. From our far-flung vantage point, the two points of light are too faint to resolve individually, but as they pass in front of each other, a telltale dip in combined brightness occurs as one blocks out the other.

Welcome to the fascinating world of eclipsing binary stars. This week, we’d like to turn our attention towards a special star in the constellation of Coma Berenices which may — or may not — put on such a dimming act later this month.

Starry Night
An Alpha Comae Berenices (Diadem) finder chart, with comparison stars and magnitudes, decimals omitted. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

The brightest star in the constellation Coma Berenices, Alpha (sometimes referred to as Diadem, or the ‘crown’ of Queen Berenice) shines at an apparent magnitude of +4.3. Located 63 light years distant, the system consists of two +5th magnitude F-type stars each about 3 times more luminous than our Sun locked in a 26 year orbital embrace. The physical separation of the pair is about 10 astronomical units: place Alpha Comae Berenices in our solar system, and the pair would fit nicely between the Sun and Saturn.

The orbital plane of the pair is inclined nearly along our line of sight as seen from the Earth, and it’s long been thought that catching a grazing or central eclipse of the pair might just be possible. No eclipse was recorded last time ‘round back in February 1989, but times have changed lots in observational astronomy. Today, there are enough backyard observers armed with dedicated observatories and rigs that’d be the envy of a small university that documenting such an eclipse might just be possible. In fact, a central eclipse might just dim the star by 0.8 magnitudes, and should be noticeable to the naked eye.

The binary nature of Alpha Comae Berenices was first noted by F. G. W. Struve in 1827, and the split is a challenging one during the best of years with a maximum angular separation of just 0.7 arc seconds. The pair also has a third faint +10th magnitude companion located about 89 arc seconds away.

A simplified diagram depicting an eclipsing binary event along our line of sight. Created by the author.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) has an Alert Notice calling for sky watchers worldwide to monitor the star. We also understand the orbit of Alpha Comae Berenices much better in 2015 than back in 1989, and the suspected eclipse should occur somewhere between January 22nd and January 28th and may last anywhere from 28 to 45 hours. This lingering ambiguity means that having a dedicated team of observers worldwide may well be key to nabbing this eclipse.

Alpha Comae Berenices rising. Photo by the author.

The Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI) has already begun refining measurements of the brightness of the star last month, and professional facilities, to include the Fairborn Observatory atop Mt Hopkins in Arizona and the CHARA (the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy) Array at Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California will also be monitoring the event.

Sky and Telescope magazine also has an excellent article in their January 2015 issue on the prospects for catching this eclipse.

Looking eastward past local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.

In late January, the constellation of Coma Berenices rises high to the northeast just after local midnight.  It’s worth noting that, if the eclipsing binary nature of Alpha Comae Berenices is confirmed, it would be the longest period known, beating out 14.6 year Gamma Persei discovered in 1990 by more than a decade. A system with as wide a separation as Alpha Comae Berenices would have about a 1 in 1,200 chance in eclipsing along our line of sight due to random chance.

Note: Epsilon Aurigae does have a comparable 27 year period involving a debris disk surrounding its host star. Thanks to sharp-eyed reader Dr. John Barentine for pointing this out!

Of course, the universe does provide us with lots of near misses, allowing for an ‘occasional Diadem’ to indeed occur. Most famous eclipsing variables, such as Algol or Beta Lyrae have periods measured over the span of days or hours. Incidentally, these also make great ‘practice stars’ to test your skills as a visual athlete leading up to the big event next week. A skilled visual observer can note a change as slight as a 0.1 of a magnitude, and it’s a good idea to begin familiarizing yourself with the environs of the star now. The Coma Cluster of galaxies, the globular cluster M53, and the galactic plane crossing intruder Arcturus all lie nearby.

Credit: NASA/Spitzer.
The Coma Cluster as seen by Spitzer Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credit: NASA/Spitzer.

Why study eclipsing binaries? Well, said fleeting mutual events when coupled with spectroscopic measurements and determinations of parallax can tell us a good deal about the astrophysical nature of the stars involved. Eclipsing binary stars have even been used to back up standard candle measurements over extragalactic distances. And of course, orbiting observatories such as Kepler and TESS (to be launched in 2017) look for transiting exoplanets using virtually the same method.

Credit: Brad Timerson.
Have a scope+DSLR? Then you can make refined measurements of eclipsing variable stars. Credit: Brad Timerson/IOTA.

But beyond its practical application, we just think that it’s plain cool that you can actually see something out beyond our solar system changing in the span of just a few days or hours.

Observers also still carry out visual observations of variable stars, just like those pipe-smoking, pocket watch carrying astronomers of yore. This involves merely comparing the target star to nearby stars of the same brightness. If you have a DSLR or a CCD rig plus a telescope, the AAVSO also has instructions for how to monitor a star’s brightness as well. No pocket watch required.

A homemade interferometer used to measure the separation of close double stars.
A homemade ‘card interferometer’ used to measure the separation of close double stars. Photo by author.

Unless, of course, you want to carry a pocket watch just for good luck. Don’t let the cold January winters keep you from joining the hunt. Let’s make some astrophysical history!



Seeing Red: Hunting Herschel’s Garnet Star

Mu Cephei (arrowed) in the constellation Cepheus the King. (Photo & graphic by author).

Quick, what’s the reddest star visible to the naked eye?

Depending on your sky conditions, your answer may well be this week’s astronomical highlight.

Mu Cephei, also known as Herschel’s Garnet Star, is a ruddy gem in the constellation Cepheus near the Cygnus/Lacerta border. A variable star ranging in brightness by a factor of about three-fold from magnitudes 5.0 to 3.7, Mu Cephei is low to the northeast for mid-northern latitude observers in July at dusk, and will be progressively higher as summer wears on. Continue reading “Seeing Red: Hunting Herschel’s Garnet Star”