Standard Candles in Astrophysics
Robert Logan

For a very long time I have had a fascination with the stars. As far back as I can remember, I have always thought of them as one of the most beautiful parts of the world we live in. As I grew older, I learned about what exactly those little points of light were, and how large the universe that we live in really is. That the universe is almost thirteen billion years old, that our galaxy alone is almost 120,000 light years across, and that there are trillions upon trillions of stars in the visible universe, are truly mind-blowing facts. As I learned this information, however, I came to wonder how we discovered these things, how we observe and explore our universe today, and what our discoveries mean for the future. Astronomers today have two main methods of determining extreme distances in the universe: Cepheid Variable Stars and Type Ia Supernovas. This is why I have chosen to write about these “standard candles” of astrophysics: they are our guides in a very large and overwhelming universe. For millennia philosophers have spoken about the heavens, but the first person to try to find a quantitative estimate of the distances between the heavenly bodies was Aristarchus in ~250 BCE. Indeed, he was probably the first „modern‟ astronomer. Using simple geometry and a few observations, he came up with (rather good!) estimates of the relative distances between the Earth, Sun, and Moon, and this feat would not be recreated for more than a thousand years (Batten 29). His model of our world was also the first one to put the sun at the center, and thus to neglect mentioning him in any paper on the subject would be akin to heresy. Unfortunately, Aristarchus‟ works were lost to time. The first man to recreate the heliocentric model after him was Copernicus (1473-1543). While Copernicus‟ work was instrumental in reviving modern astronomy, he made the error of assuming that the orbits of the planets were made up of perfect spheres (O'Connor, and Robertson). Johannes Kepler (15711630) was the first person to discover the true nature of planetary motion. Kepler was the assistant mathematician to Tycho Brahe, who was the Imperial Mathematician in Prague (Holy Roman Empire) and an amateur astronomer. Brahe took an excessively large quantity of data on the positions of Mars, and when Kepler succeeded him after his death in 1601, Kepler took advantage of this data to map out the orbit of Mars around the sun. He found that Mars‟ orbit was an ellipse, and discovered the laws of orbital motion named in his honor (Field). The final piece of the planetary puzzle was placed by Cassini, who found the distance to Mars using the phenomenon known as parallax (NASA Space Place). Parallax is “the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer” (It‟s also part of how human depth perception works) (HEASARC).

a field known as stellar photometry. all of the interplanetary distances could be determined through geometry (HEASARC). director of the Harvard College Observatory. From this. it starts to become unusable at distances further than a few hundred light years for ground based telescopes. Sun and the star. She found about thirty of these stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud. along with the known distance between the Earth and Sun. To measure distances across the galaxy and beyond. To measure the distance to a star. they were able to find the actual distance to Mars. While parallax is quite reliable for the planets in the solar system. while his colleague went to French Guiana in South America to take the same measurement. we can measure how much the object appears to shift as we orbit about the sun. and even the nearest stars. Figure 1. he measured Mars‟ angular position in the sky from Paris. and even for the Hubble Space Telescope. determining the apparent magnitude (brightness from Earth) of stars on photographic plates by looking at the size of the impression the stars left. From this. we can use a simple trigonometric ratio to find the distance to the object (Khan Academy). she was told to pay special attention to variable stars. whose brightness would change over time. While doing her work. parallax is clearly not good enough for modern astronomy. Leavitt was hired to be a “computer”. In 1893. astronomers had to discover a new method: Cepheid variables. parallax is only useful to a range of about a few thousand light years (UTK). Forming a triangle with vertices at the Earth. Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) was hired by Edward Pickering. With the Milky Way being more than a hundred thousand light years across. parallax measurement is limited by our ability to observe the angular displacement of an object reliably. we can use our motion around the sun to measure the angular displacement of that object in relation to the background of stars. However. which we now know is a galaxy .2 When Cassini measured the distance to Mars. Forming a triangle with vertices at the two astronomers and Mars. and using the known distances between the two.Stellar Parallax: by viewing a distant object (such as a planet or star) in front of the fixed stellar background. trigonometry gives us the distance to the star.

The magnitude scale is logarithmic. When the star‟s radius is at its minimum.000 up to 100. She noticed in her survey that variable stars that were brighter during their bright phase had longer periods than the dimmer stars. By observing the emission spectrum of these variables and its changing Doppler shift. According to current theory. but she had unfortunately died a couple years prior and posthumous nomination was not allowed (Bartusiak). and turned up 1.000 times the brightness of the Sun) stars. and opening up the universe to detailed investigation. the actual mechanism of their variability has been the subject of much debate and research. Cepheids are large (mass of about 5 to 20 times that of the sun) and exceptionally luminous (from 30. we get the relation: (Zeilik and Gregory 227) Where d is the distance from the object. with an increase of one magnitude being equal to an increase in luminosity of 100. This doubly ionized helium is much more opaque than normal or singly ionized helium.26 light years.777 variable stars in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. With this relationship. As this outer region of helium expands and . and the luminosity of a source weakened. she searched all the photographic plates that she could find. and this causes the star to appear dim. To be sure this relationship held true. according to the Inverse Square Law. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences sought out Henrietta to nominate her for a Nobel Prize. Ejnard Hertzprung. Henrietta only had to find the distance to one star to find the distance to them all. While astronomers recognized the general reliability of Cepheids for distance measurement.3 orbiting the Milky Way. She realized that if we knew the distance to just one single Cepheid.2. we could find the distance to every Cepheid that we can see (Bartusiak). Knowing that the stars in the Cloud were in roughly the same area. Unfortunately she was unable to do this herself due to illness. we know that as the stars change in brightness they literally expand and contract. Henrietta knew that light dispersed. Graphing this data on a logarithmic chart. and brightness increases as the value of the magnitude decreases (Confusing. and rapidly expands outward. m is the apparent magnitude of the source of light that the observer measures and M is the absolute magnitude of the source. using Henrietta‟s data and parallax measurements of a nearby Cepheid. and knowing that the brightness of a Cepheid is directly and consistently related to their period. stars that have this relationship are now called Cepheid Variables. sample calculation & examples at paper‟s end).512 times (Zeilik and Gregory 227). or about 3. An absolute magnitude of zero is defined as the brightness of the Sun at a distance of 10 parsecs. the helium is heated even further. or 2. establishing Cepheids as the first standard candle. she postulated that there was a direct relationship between the brightness and period length. she found an almost perfect linear correlation between the brightness of the variable stars and their periods. Because the light is trapped inside. By combining the inverse square law with the nomenclature for brightness in astronomy. the immense heat from the star causes the helium to lose both of its electrons. was able to calibrate her graph. this is the result of helium in the outer atmosphere of the star becoming singly and doubly ionized.

and as it comes in close it starts to heat up again. The helium falls back into the star. so astronomers and cosmologists need something even bigger and brighter than the Cepheids.Cepheid Variables: Looking at the different tables. Cepheids can be seen up to tens of millions of light-years away (Feurstein). However. . it becomes doubly ionized. it is possible to see the relationship between expansion and brightness. have been used to map out distances within our Milky Way and help us determine the size and shape of our galaxy. along with other variable stars. As it heats. So the question becomes: what is brighter than a Cepheid. When the star is at its brightest. the outward pressure from the star weakens. and also causing the helium gas to cool even faster. Figure 2. it is also at maximum temperature and maximum rate of expansion. The “edge” of the visible universe is estimated to be about 42 billion light-years away (Wright). The atmosphere then compresses and the star dims again. an important goal of astrophysics is to determine the rate at which the Universe is expanding. it starts to cool. This is when the star is at its brightest. and gravity takes over. and the gas begins to regain some of the lost electrons. the answer has been observed several times in the last few thousand years. As the gas cools and allows light to pass. allowing more of the light to escape. This is the point at which the outer atmosphere has spread out and become transparent again. and yet usable as a standard candle? Interestingly. This causes the gas to become less opaque. Because of their brightness. Cepheid variables. this represents only a small portion of the universe.4 moves away from the star. Also. and they have been used to determine the distances to other galaxies and objects within the Local Group. and the process repeats (Khan Academy). including Andromeda and more than 20 other galaxies (Zeilik and Gregory 447). and to determine that we need to measure over extreme distances.

Today. A Type Ia Supernova will outshine its entire galaxy. they are quite a sight to behold. are stellar events that occur within a time frame of a few hours or days (Pandian). and Johannes Kepler in 1604. When they are observed successfully. Japanese. Figure 3. the first records of this event in Europe were made by Danish Nobleman and astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572. however. They recorded seeing a new (“nova”) star appear in the sky and then slowly fade away. and also to perform . This explains how Brahe and Kepler were able to make the precise measurements that they did. this image is the aftermath 400 years later. we have the ability to view the light from these events in many different spectrums (the image on the previous page is a composite image over various wavelengths). However. and Koreans in 1054.Kepler‟s Supernova: This is the remnant of the supernova that Johannes Kepler saw in 1604. Little did they know that their observations constituted the first detailed records of one of the universe‟s most extreme displays of force. shining with a brightness of up to 5 billion times that of our sun (Summers). now known as Type Ia Supernovae. The records they kept were so exacting (and they didn‟t have telescopes!) that astronomers today have actually found the remnants from the events that those two men saw (Craig 79-84).5 though the observers did not know what they were looking at (this resulted in a very ironic name). When he made his observation it had just exploded. The events that the two men saw. One was seen by the Chinese. meaning that observing them at peak brightness is uniquely difficult among cosmological phenomena.

We know that the events produce very little or none of the hydrogen usually seen from stars. One star is larger. This causes a big problem. The scenario begins with a binary star system. because stars are almost totally built up of hydrogen. After the outer layers are removed. This explains the spectrum we see: first the spectra from the lighter elements from the outside of the star. a White Dwarf is a dead star in which electron degeneracy prevents gravity from compacting the star any more. and then the spectra from the heavier elements created inside (Craig 102106). along with the silicon previously mentioned. astrophysicists created their model of the Type Ia supernova. causing ever faster fusion. All of the fuel in the star is used up in a flash. and a supernova explosion should show hydrogen being cast off. The atoms are so crushed together that the electrons would have to occupy equivalent quantum states for any further compression to occur. the accelerating burn becomes supersonic. At some point. Finally. The primary expands and becomes a Red Giant. almost identical for each event (Falck). the emissions from these events follow a distinct brightness curve. The companion star is blasted away by the explosion. . until the mass of the Dwarf reaches the Chandrasekhar limit (~1. The second was that Type Ia‟s have a Silicon II absorption line. at which point the protons and electrons will compress into neutrons. This is very strange. We also know that. Now. At about 99% of the Chandrasekhar mass. which is completely unique. silicon. and all that is left of the White Dwarf is a cloud of dust. Normally. the star cannot expand to release the energy. magnesium. Electron degeneracy does not allow further compression. the core of the primary and the companion star orbit each other within a cloud of the accreted gasses. sucking away its outer layers. And finally we know that an unprecedented amount of energy is produced. and the star explodes.6 spectroscopy on the light we receive. moving outward from the center. The core of the primary collapses becoming a White Dwarf. and most importantly. This releases massive amounts of energy. time elapses and the companion begins to age. From this information. This fusion is subsonic deflagration. and the companion star begins accreting matter. fusing all the matter into radioactive nickel. releasing energy in the form of neutrinos and forming a neutron star. The temperature rises at an extreme pace. and sulfur present in the emission spectrum at peak brightness. and the primary begins to accrete matter and consume the companion (Falck). calcium. and ages more quickly (this star is the primary) than the other. the companion expands. however. These conditions imply that all Type Ia supernovas originate from the same basic initial setup. carbon in the core of the Dwarf ignites and begins to fuse. but because the core is so dense and under the power of electron degeneracy. One of the first peculiarities astronomers noticed about Type Ia‟s was that they have no Hydrogen emission lines. With the primary in a stable state. causing a detonation. two stars orbiting each other in close proximity (See next). there is also oxygen. This does not occur. spiraling inward toward each other. and later on the spectrum becomes dominated by iron and other heavy elements (Craig 102-106).44 solar masses).

a very unstable isotope. Immediately after the explosion. The positron quickly comes into contact with an electron and annihilates. That‟s not the entire story. Oddly. the resultant cloud of dust and debris is far too hot to be transparent.Type Ia Formation: Visual of White Dwarf collapse. emitting gamma rays. Because of the speed of the detonation. since the fuel is made up of atoms with equal numbers of protons and neutrons. the strong force dictates that the initial result will have the same properties. Cobalt-56 is also unstable. Though iron is the most stable outcome of this sort of reaction. It is these photons that we see from Earth (Craig 111-113). The cloud has to expand and cool before it becomes transparent again. which is stable. and by that time the light from the initial detonation and burn has been absorbed. These myriad gamma rays emitted during the decay processes fall upon the expanding cloud of gas and dust. The first element formed is Nickel-56. and thus decays into Iron-56. all of the light we receive from the supernova is a result of radioactive decay. however. which rapidly decays into Cobalt-56. This decay gives off gamma rays along with a positron.7 Figure 4. the weak force doesn‟t have a chance to intercede in the initial reaction. . and then are absorbed and re-emitted. also creating (at least two) gamma rays.

even on a cosmological scale (Summers). Astronomers such as Saul Perlmutter. and Adam G. Beyond our local cluster of galaxies. Schmidt. . it is possible to quantify this relationship between acceleration and distance. Using the same method as is used to find the distance to Cepheids. we get the same relation between distance and velocity. Through measuring the redshift in the spectrums of extremely distant galaxies and supernovas. they are perfect standard candles. Because of their uniformity and brightness. Schmidt.7 billion years (Craig 263-269). Riess (Nobel Prize 2011) hope to use Type Ia supernovas to discover the ultimate fate of our universe. and Reiss discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe. the brightness of each supernova is equivalent. By measuring the redshift of many distant objects. and so Cepheid variables are no longer useful. Using this method they were able to observe dozens of supernovae at a time (Nobel). astronomers can measure extreme distances. The current value is about 65 kilometers per second per million parsecs of distance away (~3. giving the currently accepted age of the universe: 13. and then image the same patch of sky again a few weeks later. they were able to counteract the relative rarity of Type 1a Supernovas. They found that the farther things are away from us.8 Because the reactions within Type Ia supernovas are nearly all the same. telescopes have a very hard time picking out individual stars. the faster they‟re speeding away. For every distant galaxy and object. known as the Hubble Constant. Brian P. Perlmutter. They would watch a wide patch of sky containing thousands of galaxies for two or three nights after the new moon.26 million light years). By using a clever strategy called “Supernova on Demand”.

„anti-gravity‟ required to cause the universe to expand rather than collapse. This number arises from the amount of. This is Hubble‟s original data. will always be our guides through the universe. Parallax isn‟t usable at distances beyond our galaxy. and perhaps even new (very. By taking more. . which resulted in the creation of the Hubble Constant and established the Expanding Universe model. the Hubble Space Telescope imaged 11 Type Ia‟s. We don‟t know why the universe is expanding more and more rapidly. this new telescope will be able to answer questions about the formation of early galaxies and the Big Bang. and more accurate. For everything that we know. and confirmed the accelerating expansion. astronomers hope to learn more about the so-called “Dark Energy” causing the expansion of space. there always seems to be much more that we don‟t know. their brethren. New and much more powerful telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope (current launch date 2018) are planned to take over older technology like Hubble. very old). Cepheids. However. just that it is. From 1998 to 2000. and the fate of our universe. both on Earth with advanced telescopes and the Large Hadron Collider. Hopefully. Astronomers hope to measure up to a thousand heavily redshifted Type Ia Supernovas in order to glean more information. Hubble also gave more credence to the theory that the universe is made up of about 75% dark matter. and in space.9 Figure 5: Linear relationship between recession velocity and distance in extragalactic nebulae discovered by Edwin Hubble. These are the questions astrophysicists and theoretical physicists are tackling today. Type Ia Supernovas. the JWST and others like it will still need some way to determine distance. to put it in simple terms. is likely a question that will not be answered for some time yet. disproving the theory that the redshifts were caused by intergalactic dust. much less billions of light years away. measurements of extremely redshifted Type Ia supernovas. The nature of Dark Energy. yet to be discovered standard candles. and to see how Dark Energy is changing over time (Hasler). and give us a new view into the most distant reaches of the universe (NASA JWST).