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Astronomy

19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances

Astronomy19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
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  1. Preface
  2. 1 Science and the Universe: A Brief Tour
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 The Nature of Astronomy
    3. 1.2 The Nature of Science
    4. 1.3 The Laws of Nature
    5. 1.4 Numbers in Astronomy
    6. 1.5 Consequences of Light Travel Time
    7. 1.6 A Tour of the Universe
    8. 1.7 The Universe on the Large Scale
    9. 1.8 The Universe of the Very Small
    10. 1.9 A Conclusion and a Beginning
    11. For Further Exploration
  3. 2 Observing the Sky: The Birth of Astronomy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 2.1 The Sky Above
    3. 2.2 Ancient Astronomy
    4. 2.3 Astrology and Astronomy
    5. 2.4 The Birth of Modern Astronomy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  4. 3 Orbits and Gravity
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 3.1 The Laws of Planetary Motion
    3. 3.2 Newton’s Great Synthesis
    4. 3.3 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    5. 3.4 Orbits in the Solar System
    6. 3.5 Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    7. 3.6 Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  5. 4 Earth, Moon, and Sky
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 4.1 Earth and Sky
    3. 4.2 The Seasons
    4. 4.3 Keeping Time
    5. 4.4 The Calendar
    6. 4.5 Phases and Motions of the Moon
    7. 4.6 Ocean Tides and the Moon
    8. 4.7 Eclipses of the Sun and Moon
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  6. 5 Radiation and Spectra
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 5.1 The Behavior of Light
    3. 5.2 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    4. 5.3 Spectroscopy in Astronomy
    5. 5.4 The Structure of the Atom
    6. 5.5 Formation of Spectral Lines
    7. 5.6 The Doppler Effect
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  7. 6 Astronomical Instruments
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 6.1 Telescopes
    3. 6.2 Telescopes Today
    4. 6.3 Visible-Light Detectors and Instruments
    5. 6.4 Radio Telescopes
    6. 6.5 Observations outside Earth’s Atmosphere
    7. 6.6 The Future of Large Telescopes
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  8. 7 Other Worlds: An Introduction to the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 7.1 Overview of Our Planetary System
    3. 7.2 Composition and Structure of Planets
    4. 7.3 Dating Planetary Surfaces
    5. 7.4 Origin of the Solar System
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  9. 8 Earth as a Planet
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 8.1 The Global Perspective
    3. 8.2 Earth’s Crust
    4. 8.3 Earth’s Atmosphere
    5. 8.4 Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    6. 8.5 Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  10. 9 Cratered Worlds
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 9.1 General Properties of the Moon
    3. 9.2 The Lunar Surface
    4. 9.3 Impact Craters
    5. 9.4 The Origin of the Moon
    6. 9.5 Mercury
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  11. 10 Earthlike Planets: Venus and Mars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 10.1 The Nearest Planets: An Overview
    3. 10.2 The Geology of Venus
    4. 10.3 The Massive Atmosphere of Venus
    5. 10.4 The Geology of Mars
    6. 10.5 Water and Life on Mars
    7. 10.6 Divergent Planetary Evolution
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  12. 11 The Giant Planets
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets
    3. 11.2 The Giant Planets
    4. 11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  13. 12 Rings, Moons, and Pluto
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 12.1 Ring and Moon Systems Introduced
    3. 12.2 The Galilean Moons of Jupiter
    4. 12.3 Titan and Triton
    5. 12.4 Pluto and Charon
    6. 12.5 Planetary Rings
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  14. 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 13.1 Asteroids
    3. 13.2 Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    4. 13.3 The “Long-Haired” Comets
    5. 13.4 The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  15. 14 Cosmic Samples and the Origin of the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 14.1 Meteors
    3. 14.2 Meteorites: Stones from Heaven
    4. 14.3 Formation of the Solar System
    5. 14.4 Comparison with Other Planetary Systems
    6. 14.5 Planetary Evolution
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  16. 15 The Sun: A Garden-Variety Star
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 15.1 The Structure and Composition of the Sun
    3. 15.2 The Solar Cycle
    4. 15.3 Solar Activity above the Photosphere
    5. 15.4 Space Weather
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  17. 16 The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 16.1 Sources of Sunshine: Thermal and Gravitational Energy
    3. 16.2 Mass, Energy, and the Theory of Relativity
    4. 16.3 The Solar Interior: Theory
    5. 16.4 The Solar Interior: Observations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  18. 17 Analyzing Starlight
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 17.1 The Brightness of Stars
    3. 17.2 Colors of Stars
    4. 17.3 The Spectra of Stars (and Brown Dwarfs)
    5. 17.4 Using Spectra to Measure Stellar Radius, Composition, and Motion
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  19. 18 The Stars: A Celestial Census
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 18.1 A Stellar Census
    3. 18.2 Measuring Stellar Masses
    4. 18.3 Diameters of Stars
    5. 18.4 The H–R Diagram
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  20. 19 Celestial Distances
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 19.1 Fundamental Units of Distance
    3. 19.2 Surveying the Stars
    4. 19.3 Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
    5. 19.4 The H–R Diagram and Cosmic Distances
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  21. 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 20.1 The Interstellar Medium
    3. 20.2 Interstellar Gas
    4. 20.3 Cosmic Dust
    5. 20.4 Cosmic Rays
    6. 20.5 The Life Cycle of Cosmic Material
    7. 20.6 Interstellar Matter around the Sun
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  22. 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 21.1 Star Formation
    3. 21.2 The H–R Diagram and the Study of Stellar Evolution
    4. 21.3 Evidence That Planets Form around Other Stars
    5. 21.4 Planets beyond the Solar System: Search and Discovery
    6. 21.5 Exoplanets Everywhere: What We Are Learning
    7. 21.6 New Perspectives on Planet Formation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  23. 22 Stars from Adolescence to Old Age
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 22.1 Evolution from the Main Sequence to Red Giants
    3. 22.2 Star Clusters
    4. 22.3 Checking Out the Theory
    5. 22.4 Further Evolution of Stars
    6. 22.5 The Evolution of More Massive Stars
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  24. 23 The Death of Stars
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 23.1 The Death of Low-Mass Stars
    3. 23.2 Evolution of Massive Stars: An Explosive Finish
    4. 23.3 Supernova Observations
    5. 23.4 Pulsars and the Discovery of Neutron Stars
    6. 23.5 The Evolution of Binary Star Systems
    7. 23.6 The Mystery of the Gamma-Ray Bursts
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  25. 24 Black Holes and Curved Spacetime
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 24.1 Introducing General Relativity
    3. 24.2 Spacetime and Gravity
    4. 24.3 Tests of General Relativity
    5. 24.4 Time in General Relativity
    6. 24.5 Black Holes
    7. 24.6 Evidence for Black Holes
    8. 24.7 Gravitational Wave Astronomy
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  26. 25 The Milky Way Galaxy
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 25.1 The Architecture of the Galaxy
    3. 25.2 Spiral Structure
    4. 25.3 The Mass of the Galaxy
    5. 25.4 The Center of the Galaxy
    6. 25.5 Stellar Populations in the Galaxy
    7. 25.6 The Formation of the Galaxy
    8. Key Terms
    9. Summary
    10. For Further Exploration
    11. Collaborative Group Activities
    12. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  27. 26 Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 26.1 The Discovery of Galaxies
    3. 26.2 Types of Galaxies
    4. 26.3 Properties of Galaxies
    5. 26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
    6. 26.5 The Expanding Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  28. 27 Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Supermassive Black Holes
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 27.1 Quasars
    3. 27.2 Supermassive Black Holes: What Quasars Really Are
    4. 27.3 Quasars as Probes of Evolution in the Universe
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. For Further Exploration
    8. Collaborative Group Activities
    9. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  29. 28 The Evolution and Distribution of Galaxies
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 28.1 Observations of Distant Galaxies
    3. 28.2 Galaxy Mergers and Active Galactic Nuclei
    4. 28.3 The Distribution of Galaxies in Space
    5. 28.4 The Challenge of Dark Matter
    6. 28.5 The Formation and Evolution of Galaxies and Structure in the Universe
    7. Key Terms
    8. Summary
    9. For Further Exploration
    10. Collaborative Group Activities
    11. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  30. 29 The Big Bang
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 29.1 The Age of the Universe
    3. 29.2 A Model of the Universe
    4. 29.3 The Beginning of the Universe
    5. 29.4 The Cosmic Microwave Background
    6. 29.5 What Is the Universe Really Made Of?
    7. 29.6 The Inflationary Universe
    8. 29.7 The Anthropic Principle
    9. Key Terms
    10. Summary
    11. For Further Exploration
    12. Collaborative Group Activities
    13. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  31. 30 Life in the Universe
    1. Thinking Ahead
    2. 30.1 The Cosmic Context for Life
    3. 30.2 Astrobiology
    4. 30.3 Searching for Life beyond Earth
    5. 30.4 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. For Further Exploration
    9. Collaborative Group Activities
    10. Exercises
      1. Review Questions
      2. Thought Questions
      3. Figuring for Yourself
  32. A | How to Study for an Introductory Astronomy Class
  33. B | Astronomy Websites, Images, and Apps
  34. C | Scientific Notation
  35. D | Units Used in Science
  36. E | Some Useful Constants for Astronomy
  37. F | Physical and Orbital Data for the Planets
  38. G | Selected Moons of the Planets
  39. H | Future Total Eclipses
  40. I | The Nearest Stars, Brown Dwarfs, and White Dwarfs
  41. J | The Brightest Twenty Stars
  42. K | The Chemical Elements
  43. L | The Constellations
  44. M | Star Chart and Sky Event Resources
  45. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe how some stars vary their light output and why such stars are important
  • Explain the importance of pulsating variable stars, such as cepheids and RR Lyrae-type stars, to our study of the universe

Let’s briefly review the key reasons that measuring distances to the stars is such a struggle. As discussed in The Brightness of Stars, our problem is that stars come in a bewildering variety of intrinsic luminosities. (If stars were light bulbs, we’d say they come in a wide range of wattages.) Suppose, instead, that all stars had the same “wattage” or luminosity. In that case, the more distant ones would always look dimmer, and we could tell how far away a star is simply by how dim it appeared. In the real universe, however, when we look at a star in our sky (with eye or telescope) and measure its apparent brightness, we cannot know whether it looks dim because it’s a low-wattage bulb or because it is far away, or perhaps some of each.

Astronomers need to discover something else about the star that allows us to “read off” its intrinsic luminosity—in effect, to know what the star’s true wattage is. With this information, we can then attribute how dim it looks from Earth to its distance. Recall that the apparent brightness of an object decreases with the square of the distance to that object. If two objects have the same luminosity but one is three times farther than the other, the more distant one will look nine times fainter. Therefore, if we know the luminosity of a star and its apparent brightness, we can calculate how far away it is. Astronomers have long searched for techniques that would somehow allow us to determine the luminosity of a star—and it is to these techniques that we turn next.

Variable Stars

The breakthrough in measuring distances to remote parts of our Galaxy, and to other galaxies as well, came from the study of variable stars. Most stars are constant in their luminosity, at least to within a percent or two. Like the Sun, they generate a steady flow of energy from their interiors. However, some stars are seen to vary in brightness and, for this reason, are called variable stars. Many such stars vary on a regular cycle, like the flashing bulbs that decorate stores and homes during the winter holidays.

Let’s define some tools to help us keep track of how a star varies. A graph that shows how the brightness of a variable star changes with time is called a light curve (Figure 19.9). The maximum is the point of the light curve where the star has its greatest brightness; the minimum is the point where it is faintest. If the light variations repeat themselves periodically, the interval between the two maxima is called the period of the star. (If this kind of graph looks familiar, it is because we introduced it in Diameters of Stars.)

Plot of a Cepheid Light Curve. In this graph the vertical axis is labeled “Magnitude,” and goes from 4.4 (at the bottom) to 3.4 in increments of 0.2. The horizontal axis is labeled “Time (days),” ranging from 0 to 18 in increments of 1 day. The plotted curve begins at day zero near magnitude 4.1. The curve dips to the minimum magnitude of 4.3 at day 1.5, then rises rapidly to the maximum magnitude of 3.6 at day 3. The curve slowly dips down again to magnitude 4.3 at day 7. The curve repeats two more times to day 18, giving the plot the appearance of a saw blade.
Figure 19.9 Cepheid Light Curve. This light curve shows how the brightness changes with time for a typical cepheid variable, with a period of about 6 days.

Pulsating Variables

There are two special types of variable stars for which—as we will see—measurements of the light curve give us accurate distances. These are called cepheid and RR Lyrae variables, both of which are pulsating variable stars. Such a star actually changes its diameter with time—periodically expanding and contracting, as your chest does when you breathe. We now understand that these stars are going through a brief unstable stage late in their lives.

The expansion and contraction of pulsating variables can be measured by using the Doppler effect. The lines in the spectrum shift toward the blue as the surface of the star moves toward us and then shift to the red as the surface shrinks back. As the star pulsates, it also changes its overall color, indicating that its temperature is also varying. And, most important for our purposes, the luminosity of the pulsating variable also changes in a regular way as it expands and contracts.

Cepheid Variables

Cepheids are large, yellow, pulsating stars named for the first-known star of the group, Delta Cephei. This, by the way, is another example of how confusing naming conventions get in astronomy; here, a whole class of stars is named after the constellation in which the first one happened to be found. (We textbook authors can only apologize to our readers for the whole mess!)

The variability of Delta Cephei was discovered in 1784 by the young English astronomer John Goodricke (see John Goodricke). The star rises rather rapidly to maximum light and then falls more slowly to minimum light, taking a total of 5.4 days for one cycle. The curve in Figure 19.9 represents a simplified version of the light curve of Delta Cephei.

Several hundred cepheid variables are known in our Galaxy. Most cepheids have periods in the range of 3 to 50 days and luminosities that are about 1000 to 10,000 times greater than that of the Sun. Their variations in luminosity range from a few percent to a factor of 10.

Polaris, the North Star, is a cepheid variable that, for a long time, varied by one tenth of a magnitude, or by about 10% in visual luminosity, in a period of just under 4 days. Recent measurements indicate that the amount by which the brightness of Polaris changes is decreasing and that, sometime in the future, this star will no longer be a pulsating variable. This is just one more piece of evidence that stars really do evolve and change in fundamental ways as they age, and that being a cepheid variable represents a stage in the life of the star.

The Period-Luminosity Relation

The importance of cepheid variables lies in the fact that their periods and average luminosities turn out to be directly related. The longer the period (the longer the star takes to vary), the greater the luminosity. This period-luminosity relation was a remarkable discovery, one for which astronomers still (pardon the expression) thank their lucky stars. The period of such a star is easy to measure: a good telescope and a good clock are all you need. Once you have the period, the relationship (which can be put into precise mathematical terms) will give you the luminosity of the star.

Let’s be clear on what that means. The relation allows you to essentially “read off” how bright the star really is (how much energy it puts out). Astronomers can then compare this intrinsic brightness with the apparent brightness of the star. As we saw, the difference between the two allows them to calculate the distance.

The relation between period and luminosity was discovered in 1908 by Henrietta Leavitt (Figure 19.10), a staff member at the Harvard College Observatory (and one of a number of women working for low wages assisting Edward Pickering, the observatory’s director; see Annie Cannon: Classifier of the Stars). Leavitt discovered hundreds of variable stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud, two great star systems that are actually neighboring galaxies (although they were not known to be galaxies then). A small fraction of these variables were cepheids (Figure 19.11).

Photograph of Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
Figure 19.10 Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921). Leavitt worked as an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory. While studying photographs of the Magellanic Clouds, she found over 1700 variable stars, including 20 cepheids. Since all the cepheids in these systems were at roughly the same distance, she was able to compare their luminosities and periods of variation. She thus discovered a fundamental relationship between these characteristics that led to a new and much better way of estimating cosmic distances. (credit: modification of work by AIP)

These systems presented a wonderful opportunity to study the behavior of variable stars independent of their distance. For all practical purposes, the Magellanic Clouds are so far away that astronomers can assume that all the stars in them are at roughly the same distance from us. (In the same way, all the suburbs of Los Angeles are roughly the same distance from New York City. Of course, if you are in Los Angeles, you will notice annoying distances between the suburbs, but compared to how far away New York City is, the differences seem small.) If all the variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds are at roughly the same distance, then any difference in their apparent brightnesses must be caused by differences in their intrinsic luminosities.

Photograph of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Unlike spiral or elliptical galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud does not have a distinct shape and is classified as an irregular galaxy. The main portion of the galaxy is an elongated “bar” of stars, randomly surrounded by bright star clusters and huge regions of luminous gas.
Figure 19.11 Large Magellanic Cloud. The Large Magellanic Cloud (so named because Magellan’s crew were the first Europeans to record it) is a small, irregularly shaped galaxy near our own Milky Way. It was in this galaxy that Henrietta Leavitt discovered the cepheid period-luminosity relation. (credit: ESO)

Leavitt found that the brighter-appearing cepheids always have the longer periods of light variation. Thus, she reasoned, the period must be related to the luminosity of the stars. When Leavitt did this work, the distance to the Magellanic Clouds was not known, so she was only able to show that luminosity was related to period. She could not determine exactly what the relationship is.

To define the period-luminosity relation with actual numbers (to calibrate it), astronomers first had to measure the actual distances to a few nearby cepheids in another way. (This was accomplished by finding cepheids associated in clusters with other stars whose distances could be estimated from their spectra, as discussed in the next section of this chapter.) But once the relation was thus defined, it could give us the distance to any cepheid, wherever it might be located (Figure 19.12).

Cartoon of How to Use a Cepheid to Measure Distance. Panel (a) is labeled, “Find a cepheid variable star and measure its period.” The illustration shows an observer at her telescope. She is looking through the eyepiece at a star with a stopwatch in one hand. This represents the observer determining the period of variability. Panel (b) is labeled, “Use the period-luminosity law to calculate the star’s luminosity.” The illustration shows the observer plotting her measurements on a period-luminosity graph. Panel (c) is labeled, “Measure the star’s apparent brightness.” The illustration shows the observer again observing the star, but this time using electronic equipment connected to the telescope and a computer to measure the star’s brightness. Finally, panel (d) is labeled, “Compare the luminosity with the apparent brightness to calculate the distance.” The illustration shows the observer performing the calculation by hand on a whiteboard.
Figure 19.12 How to Use a Cepheid to Measure Distance. (a) Find a cepheid variable star and measure its period. (b) Use the period-luminosity relation to calculate the star’s luminosity. (c) Measure the star’s apparent brightness. (d) Compare the luminosity with the apparent brightness to calculate the distance.

Here at last was the technique astronomers had been searching for to break the confines of distance that parallax imposed on them. Cepheids can be observed and monitored, it turns out, in many parts of our own Galaxy and in other nearby galaxies as well. Astronomers, including Ejnar Hertzsprung and Harvard’s Harlow Shapley, immediately saw the potential of the new technique; they and many others set to work exploring more distant reaches of space using cepheids as signposts. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble made one of the most significant astronomical discoveries of all time using cepheids, when he observed them in nearby galaxies and discovered the expansion of the universe. As we will see, this work still continues, as the Hubble Space Telescope and other modern instruments try to identify and measure individual cepheids in galaxies farther and farther away. The most distant known variable stars are all cepheids, with some about 60 million light-years away.

Voyagers in Astronomy

John Goodricke

The brief life of John Goodricke (Figure 19.13) is a testament to the human spirit under adversity. Born deaf and unable to speak, Goodricke nevertheless made a number of pioneering discoveries in astronomy through patient and careful observations of the heavens.

Painting of John Goodricke.
Figure 19.13 John Goodricke (1764–1786). This portrait of Goodricke by artist J. Scouler hangs in the Royal Astronomical Society in London. There is some controversy about whether this is actually what Goodricke looked like or whether the painting was much retouched to please his family. (credit: James Scouler)

Born in Holland, where his father was on a diplomatic mission, Goodricke was sent back to England at age eight to study at a special school for the deaf. He did sufficiently well to enter Warrington Academy, a secondary school that offered no special assistance for students with handicaps. His mathematics teacher there inspired an interest in astronomy, and in 1781, at age 17, Goodricke began observing the sky at his family home in York, England. Within a year, he had discovered the brightness variations of the star Algol (discussed in The Stars: A Celestial Census) and suggested that an unseen companion star was causing the changes, a theory that waited over 100 years for proof. His paper on the subject was read before the Royal Society (the main British group of scientists) in 1783 and won him a medal from that distinguished group.

In the meantime, Goodricke had discovered two other stars that varied regularly, Beta Lyrae and Delta Cephei, both of which continued to interest astronomers for years to come. Goodricke shared his interest in observing with his older cousin, Edward Pigott, who went on to discover other variable stars during his much longer life. But Goodricke’s time was quickly drawing to a close; at age 21, only 2 weeks after he was elected to the Royal Society, he caught a cold while making astronomical observations and never recovered.

Today, the University of York has a building named Goodricke Hall and a plaque that honors his contributions to science. Yet if you go to the churchyard cemetery where he is buried, an overgrown tombstone has only the initials “J. G.” to show where he lies. Astronomer Zdenek Kopal, who looked carefully into Goodricke’s life, speculated on why the marker is so modest: perhaps the rather staid Goodricke relatives were ashamed of having a “deaf-mute” in the family and could not sufficiently appreciate how much a man who could not hear could nevertheless see.

RR Lyrae Stars

A related group of stars, whose nature was understood somewhat later than that of the cepheids, are called RR Lyrae variables, named for the star RR Lyrae, the best-known member of the group. More common than the cepheids, but less luminous, thousands of these pulsating variables are known in our Galaxy. The periods of RR Lyrae stars are always less than 1 day, and their changes in brightness are typically less than about a factor of two.

Astronomers have observed that the RR Lyrae stars occurring in any particular cluster all have about the same apparent brightness. Since stars in a cluster are all at approximately the same distance, it follows that RR Lyrae variables must all have nearly the same intrinsic luminosity, which turns out to be about 50 LSun. In this sense, RR Lyrae stars are a little bit like standard light bulbs and can also be used to obtain distances, particularly within our Galaxy. Figure 19.14 displays the ranges of periods and luminosities for both the cepheids and the RR Lyrae stars.

Graph of the Period-Luminosity Relation. The vertical axis is labeled, “Luminosity (L_Sun),” ranging from 10 to 10,000, with the intervals being 10 times the preceding value. The horizontal axis is labeled, “Period (days).” It is a logarithmic scale ranging from 0.3 to 100. At the lower left of this image, between 10 - 100 L_Sun and 0.3 - 1.0 days, is a tight grouping of data points corresponding to the R R Lyrae stars. Between about 500 - 10,000 L_Sun and 1.0 - 100 days is a linear grouping of data points that correspond to the Cepheids.
Figure 19.14 Period-Luminosity Relation for Cepheid Variables. In this class of variable stars, the time the star takes to go through a cycle of luminosity changes is related to the average luminosity of the star. Also shown are the period and luminosity for RR Lyrae stars.
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