Light echoes whisper the distance to a star

Feb 11, 2008
Astronomers calibrate the distance scale of the Universe
The nebula around the Cepheid star RS Pup undoubtedly holds a wealth of information about the mass-loss history of this star. It will thus be instrumental to understand the evolution of Cepheids. Less than five years away from the centenary of the discovery of the Period-Luminosity relation by Leavitt & Pickering, RS Pup could well become a 'Rosetta stone' for this important class of stars. This colour composite image is based on observations made with the 3.6-m ESO New Technology Telescope (NTT) installed at the La Silla Observatory (Chile) and equipped with the ESO Multi-Mode Instrument (EMMI). The image is based on data obtained through B, V, and R-filters. In order to avoid a heavy saturation of the detector, RS Pup was positioned in the gap between the detectors.

Taking advantage of the presence of light echoes, a team of astronomers have used an ESO telescope to measure, at the 1% precision level, the distance of a Cepheid - a class of variable stars that constitutes one of the first steps in the cosmic distance ladder.

"Our measurements with ESO's New Technology Telescope at La Silla allow us to obtain the most accurate distance to a Cepheid," says Pierre Kervella, lead-author of the paper reporting the result.

Cepheids are pulsating stars that have been used as distance indicators since almost a hundred years. The new accurate measurement is important as, contrary to many others, it is purely geometrical and does not rely on hypotheses about the physics at play in the stars themselves.

The team of astronomers studied RS Pup, a bright Cepheid star located towards the constellation of Puppis ('the Stern') and easily visible with binoculars. RS Pup varies in brightness by almost a factor of five every 41.4 days. It is 10 times more massive than the Sun, 200 times larger, and on average 15 000 times more luminous.

RS Pup is the only Cepheid to be embedded in a large nebula, which is made of very fine dust that reflects some of the light emitted by the star.

Because the luminosity of the star changes in a very distinctive pattern, the presence of the nebula allows the astronomers to see light echoes and use them to measure the distance of the star.

"The light that travelled from the star to a dust grain and then to the telescope arrives a bit later than the light that comes directly from the star to the telescope," explains Kervella. "As a consequence, if we measure the brightness of a particular, isolated dust blob in the nebula, we will obtain a brightness curve that has the same shape as the variation of the Cepheid, but shifted in time."

This delay is called a 'light echo', by analogy with the more traditional echo, the reflection of sound by, for example, the bottom of a well.

By monitoring the evolution of the brightness of the blobs in the nebula, the astronomers can derive their distance from the star: it is simply the measured delay in time, multiplied by the velocity of light (300 000 km/s). Knowing this distance and the apparent separation on the sky between the star and the blob, one can compute the distance of RS Pup.

From the observations of the echoes on several nebular features, the distance of RS Pup was found to be 6500 light years, plus or minus 90 light years.

"Knowing the distance to a Cepheid star with such an accuracy proves crucial to the calibration of the period-luminosity relation of this class of stars," says Kervella. "This relation is indeed at the basis of the distance determination of galaxies using Cepheids."

RS Pup is thus distant by about a quarter of the distance between the Sun and the Centre of the Milky Way. RS Pup is located within the Galactic plane, in a very populated region of our Galaxy.

"The long-period Galactic Cepheid RS Puppis - I. A geometric distance from its light echoes", P. Kervella et al. is in press in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Source: ESO

Explore further: Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

RS Puppis puts on a spectacular light show

Dec 17, 2013

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has observed the variable star RS Puppis over a period of five weeks, showing the star growing brighter and dimmer as it pulsates. These pulsations have created a stunning ...

Recommended for you

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

14 hours ago

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

14 hours ago

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

14 hours ago

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

Image: Horsehead nebula viewed in infrared

15 hours ago

Sometimes a horse of a different color hardly seems to be a horse at all, as, for example, in this newly released image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The famous Horsehead nebula makes a ghostly appearance ...

The Milky Way's new neighbour

15 hours ago

The Milky Way, the galaxy we live in, is part of a cluster of more than 50 galaxies that make up the 'Local Group', a collection that includes the famous Andromeda galaxy and many other far smaller objects. ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jeffsaunders
not rated yet Jul 25, 2008
Does this mean we now know the distances to most of the galaxies in the universe to within 90 light years?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.