Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Astronomers Improve "Cosmic Yardstick" By Measuring Distance To Star In Gemini With Palomar Testbed Interferometer

Date:
September 29, 2000
Source:
California Institute Of Technology
Summary:
Researchers using the testbed interferometer at Palomar Observatory have achieved the best-ever distance measurement to a type of star known as a Cepheid variable. The new results improve the "cosmic yardstick" used to infer the size and age of the universe.

Researchers using the testbed interferometer at Palomar Observatory have achieved the best-ever distance measurement to a type of star known as a Cepheid variable. The new results improve the "cosmic yardstick" used to infer the size and age of the universe.

Related Articles


In the September 28 issue of the British journal Nature, a group of astronomers from the California Institute of Technology, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center announce that the distance to the star Zeta Geminorum in the Gemini constellation is 1,100 light years. The degree of accuracy in the measurement is about 13 percent, meaning that the star could be as close as 960 or as far away as 1,240 light-years. This represents an improvement of a factor of three over previous measurements.

The improvement is due to the use of the Palomar Testbed Interferometer, of which JPL engineer Mark Colavita is the principal investigator and codesigner. "This has been a bit of a Holy Grail in the field," says Benjamin Lane, a graduate student in Caltech's planetary science program and the lead author of the study. "The measurement of accurate distances to Cepheids is widely considered to be a principal limitation in determining the Hubble constant."

Cepheid variables for several decades have been an important link in the chain of measurements that allow astronomers to estimate the distances to the farthest objects in the universe--and ultimately, the overall size and expansion rate of the universe itself.

Cepheid variables are stars that have very predictable relationships between their absolute brightness and the frequency with which they brighten up. A Cepheid is useful for measuring distances because, if it is known how bright the star really is, then it is a simple task to measure how bright it appears on Earth and then calculate the distance.

A good analogy is a light bulb shining at an unknown distance. If we are certain that only 100-watt light bulbs brighten once a day, and we observe that the light indeed brightens once daily, then we can calculate its distance by measuring the brightness of the light reaching us and comparing it to the known absolute brightness of a 100-watt light bulb.

"Zeta Geminorum is known to grow larger and smaller," says Lane. "We already knew this because we can see the Doppler effect." In other words, astronomers can measure a slight difference in light coming from the star because the surface of the star moves toward us and away from us as the star expands and contracts.

In the Nature study, the researchers couple this information with new data collected with the Palomar Testbed Interferometer. The interferometer combines the images from two 16-inch telescope mirrors in such a way that images are as sharp as they would be if the telescope mirror were 360 feet in diameter.

Data from the interferometer showed that Zeta Geminorum went through a change in angular size of about five hundred-millionths of a degree during its 10-day cycle. "That's roughly the size of a basketball on the moon, as seen from Earth," says Colavita.

From previous Doppler measurements, the researchers already knew that the change in the star's diameter was about 4.2 million kilometers. By combining that information with the newly measured change in angular size, they were able to deduce the distance to the Cepheid.

The direct measurement of distance to Zeta Geminorum shows that the basic technique works, Lane says. "As a graduate student, it has been exciting to be at the leading edge of this field."

The Palomar Testbed Interferometer was designed and built by a team of researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena led by Colavita and Michael Shao. Funded by NASA, the interferometer is located at the Palomar Observatory near the historic 200-inch Hale Telescope.

The device is intended as an engineering testbed for the interferometer that will soon link the 10-meter Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The Keck Interferometer has been funded to find and study extrasolar planets. The Navy and the NSF are also funding the development of interferometers for astrometry and stellar astronomy.

"The current precision is a significant improvement over the previous determinations, but we expect to achieve distance measurements at the level of a few percent in the near future," says Shri Kulkarni, a professor of astronomy and planetary science at Caltech and a coauthor of the paper.

In addition to Lane and Kulkarni, the other authors are Marc Kuchner, a Caltech graduate student in astronomy; Andrew Boden of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), and Michelle Creech-Eakman, a postdoctoral scholar at JPL.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by California Institute Of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

California Institute Of Technology. "Astronomers Improve "Cosmic Yardstick" By Measuring Distance To Star In Gemini With Palomar Testbed Interferometer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 September 2000. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/09/000929072210.htm>.
California Institute Of Technology. (2000, September 29). Astronomers Improve "Cosmic Yardstick" By Measuring Distance To Star In Gemini With Palomar Testbed Interferometer. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/09/000929072210.htm
California Institute Of Technology. "Astronomers Improve "Cosmic Yardstick" By Measuring Distance To Star In Gemini With Palomar Testbed Interferometer." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/09/000929072210.htm (accessed November 24, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Space & Time News

Monday, November 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

Raw: Crew Blasts Off for Int'l Space Station

AP (Nov. 23, 2014) A Russian capsule carrying three astronauts from Russia, the United States and Italy has blasted off for the International Space Station. (Nov. 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Google Announces Improvements To Balloon-Borne Wi-Fi Project

Google Announces Improvements To Balloon-Borne Wi-Fi Project

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) In a blog post, Google said its balloons have traveled 3 million kilometers since the start of Project Loon. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Crowdfunded Moon Mission Offers To Store Your Digital Memory

Crowdfunded Moon Mission Offers To Store Your Digital Memory

Newsy (Nov. 19, 2014) Lunar Mission One is offering to send your digital memory (or even your DNA) to the moon to be stored for a billion years. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Accidents Ignite Debate on US Commercial Space Travel

Accidents Ignite Debate on US Commercial Space Travel

AFP (Nov. 19, 2014) Serious accidents with two US commercial spacecraft within a week of each-other in October have re-ignited the debate over the place of private corporations in the exploration of space. Duration: 02:08 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins