Hubble extends stellar tape measure 10 times farther into space

Apr 10, 2014
By applying a technique called spatial scanning to an age-old method for gauging distances called astronomical parallax, scientists now can use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to make precision distance measurements 10 times farther into our galaxy than previously possible. Credit: NASA/ESA, A.Feild/STScI

( —Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now can precisely measure the distance of stars up to 10,000 light-years away—10 times farther than previously possible.

Astronomers have developed yet another novel way to use the 24-year-old by employing a technique called spatial scanning, which dramatically improves Hubble's accuracy for making angular . The technique, when applied to the age-old method for gauging distances called astronomical parallax, extends Hubble's tape measure 10 times farther into space.

"This new capability is expected to yield new insight into the nature of , a mysterious component of space that is pushing the universe apart at an ever-faster rate," said Noble laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md.

Parallax, a trigonometric technique, is the most reliable method for making astronomical distance measurements, and a practice long employed by land surveyors here on Earth. The diameter of Earth's orbit is the base of a triangle and the star is the apex where the triangle's sides meet. The lengths of the sides are calculated by accurately measuring the three angles of the resulting triangle.

Astronomical parallax works reliably well for stars within a few hundred light-years of Earth. For example, measurements of the distance to Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to our sun, vary only by one arc second. This variance in distance is equal to the apparent width of a dime seen from two miles away.

This illustration shows how the precision stellar distance measurements from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have been extended 10 times farther into our Milky Way galaxy than possible previously. This greatly extends the volume of space accessible to refining the cosmic yardstick needed for measuring the size of the universe. This most solid type of measurement is based on trigonometric parallax, which is commonly used by surveyors. Because the stars are vastly farther away than a surveyor's sightline, Hubble must measure extremely small angles on the sky. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Stars farther out have much smaller angles of apparent back-and-forth motion that are extremely difficult to measure. Astronomers have pushed to extend the parallax yardstick ever deeper into our galaxy by measuring smaller angles more accurately.

This new long-range precision was proven when scientists successfully used Hubble to measure the distance of a special class of bright stars called Cepheid variables, approximately 7,500 light-years away in the northern constellation Auriga. The technique worked so well, they are now using Hubble to measure the distances of other far-flung Cepheids.

Such measurements will be used to provide firmer footing for the so-called cosmic "distance ladder." This ladder's "bottom rung" is built on measurements to Cepheid variable stars that, because of their known brightness, have been used for more than a century to gauge the size of the observable universe. They are the first step in calibrating far more distant extra-galactic milepost markers such as Type Ia supernovae.

Riess and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., in collaboration with Stefano Casertano of STScI, developed a technique to use Hubble to make measurements as small as five-billionths of a degree.

To make a , two exposures of the target Cepheid star were taken six months apart, when Earth was on opposite sides of the sun. A very subtle shift in the star's position was measured to an accuracy of 1/1,000 the width of a single image pixel in Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, which has 16.8 megapixels total. A third exposure was taken after another six months to allow for the team to subtract the effects of the subtle space motion of stars, with additional exposures used to remove other sources of error.

Riess shares the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with another team for his leadership in the 1998 discovery the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating—a phenomenon widely attributed to a mysterious, unexplained dark energy filling the universe. This new high-precision distance measurement technique is enabling Riess to gauge just how much the universe is stretching. His goal is to refine estimates of the universe's expansion rate to the point where dark energy can be better characterized.

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5 / 5 (4) Apr 11, 2014
This is huge. Cepheids have long been used as standard candles as a 1st step in the distance measuring toolbox. Their intrinsic brightness is related to their period of variability, so knowing more precisely how far away these candles really are lets us get better #s for their true brightness called absolute magnitude. With greater accuracy to Cepheids' distances, their period luminosity relation can be better calibrated. Then the previous Hubble measurements of Cepheid brightness in many local galaxies updated with better understanding of their absolute magnitudes will give us another benchmark. A more accurate cross check on the Hubble constant.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2014
the distance of stars up to 10,000 light-years away

That's an amazing distance for the parallax method. Astounding.

But, the resulting increase in accuracy of our estimates for the distance to other galaxies will only be slightly better constrained than previously (10k LY is nothing compared to intergalactic distances). And by that token, our constraints on values that are derived from those distances will be even less improved (your error bounds widen each time you base an estimate on another estimate).

This probably isn't enough (by itself) to amount to any huge improvements in current theory.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2014
10K LY distance vs many 10s of millions of LY to nearby galaxies is not the issue. By getting a more accurate, smaller error bar, calibration for Cepheids here in our galactic quadrant, the Cepheid toolbox distances to nearby galaxies as previously measured by Hubble, et. al. can be made more accurate. Then we'll have more accurate distances and a better absolute magnitude calibration for "nearby" Type Ia supernovae which are used as the best really long distance candle. It also helps calibrate other less accurate local to medium distance indicators beyond the scope of a response.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2014
You're making too big of a deal out of it. We already have a fairly good measure of the absolute brightness of Cepheids and the distance to enough of them, which is why we already use them as standard candles. This is only a marginal improvement over what we already had, and it doesn't make much difference over all. In some cases, it will do little more than confirm previous estimates.

An order of magnitude increase in parallax distance measurements does not equate to an order of magnitude increase in the accuracy of our estimate of the relationship between absolute brightness and apparent brightness of cepheid variables and their distance. The biggest hurdle in that process is actually deciding what the apparent brightness actually is. At great distances, a very small difference in apparent brightness equates to a huge change in distance, and this new measurement improvement will not help that part very much, if at all.

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