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Astronomy

26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale

Astronomy26.4 The Extragalactic Distance Scale
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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 the use of variable stars to estimate distances to galaxies
  • Explain how standard bulbs and the Tully-Fisher relation can be used to estimate distances to galaxies

To determine many of the properties of a galaxy, such as its luminosity or size, we must first know how far away it is. If we know the distance to a galaxy, we can convert how bright the galaxy appears to us in the sky into its true luminosity because we know the precise way light is dimmed by distance. (The same galaxy 10 times farther away, for example, would look 100 times dimmer.) But the measurement of galaxy distances is one of the most difficult problems in modern astronomy: all galaxies are far away, and most are so distant that we cannot even make out individual stars in them.

For decades after Hubble’s initial work, the techniques used to measure galaxy distances were relatively inaccurate, and different astronomers derived distances that differed by as much as a factor of two. (Imagine if the distance between your home or dorm and your astronomy class were this uncertain; it would be difficult to make sure you got to class on time.) In the past few decades, however, astronomers have devised new techniques for measuring distances to galaxies; most importantly, all of them give the same answer to within an accuracy of about 10%. As we will see, this means we may finally be able to make reliable estimates of the size of the universe.

Variable Stars

Before astronomers could measure distances to other galaxies, they first had to establish the scale of cosmic distances using objects in our own Galaxy. We described the chain of these distance methods in Celestial Distances (and we recommend that you review that chapter if it has been a while since you’ve read it). Astronomers were especially delighted when they discovered that they could measure distances using certain kinds of intrinsically luminous variable stars, such as cepheids, which can be seen at very large distances (Figure 26.11).

After the variables in nearby galaxies had been used to make distance measurements for a few decades, Walter Baade showed that there were actually two kinds of cepheids and that astronomers had been unwittingly mixing them up. As a result, in the early 1950s, the distances to all of the galaxies had to be increased by about a factor of two. We mention this because we want you to bear in mind, as you read on, that science is always a study in progress. Our first tentative steps in such difficult investigations are always subject to future revision as our techniques become more reliable.

The amount of work involved in finding cepheids and measuring their periods can be enormous. Hubble, for example, obtained 350 long-exposure photographs of the Andromeda galaxy over a period of 18 years and was able to identify only 40 cepheids. Even though cepheids are fairly luminous stars, they can be detected in only about 30 of the nearest galaxies with the world’s largest ground-based telescopes.

As mentioned in Celestial Distances, one of the main projects carried out during the first years of operation of the Hubble Space Telescope was the measurement of cepheids in more distant galaxies to improve the accuracy of the extragalactic distance scale. Recently, astronomers working with the Hubble Space Telescope have extended such measurements out to 108 million light-years—a triumph of technology and determination.

Cepheid Variable Star in M100. In the background of this image is a portion of the galaxy M100. At center right is a small white box indicating the area that contains the variable star observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. Along the top of the image are three insets showing the star at three different times. From left: “May 4”, “May 9” and “May 31”. The star is significantly brighter in the May 31 image.
Figure 26.11 Cepheid Variable Star. In 1994, using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers were able to make out an individual cepheid variable star in the galaxy M100 and measure its distance to be 56 million light-years. The insets show the star on three different nights; you can see that its brightness is indeed variable. (credit: modification of work by Wendy L. Freedman, Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and NASA/ESA)

Nevertheless, we can only use cepheids to measure distances within a small fraction of the universe of galaxies. After all, to use this method, we must be able to resolve single stars and follow their subtle variations. Beyond a certain distance, even our finest space telescopes cannot help us do this. Fortunately, there are other ways to measure the distances to galaxies.

Standard Bulbs

We discussed in Celestial Distances the great frustration that astronomers felt when they realized that the stars in general were not standard bulbs. If every light bulb in a huge auditorium is a standard 100-watt bulb, then bulbs that look brighter to us must be closer, whereas those that look dimmer must be farther away. If every star were a standard luminosity (or wattage), then we could similarly “read off” their distances based on how bright they appear to us. Alas, as we have learned, neither stars nor galaxies come in one standard-issue luminosity. Nonetheless, astronomers have been searching for objects out there that do act in some way like a standard bulb—that have the same intrinsic (built-in) brightness wherever they are.

A number of suggestions have been made for what sorts of objects might be effective standard bulbs, including the brightest supergiant stars, planetary nebulae (which give off a lot of ultraviolet radiation), and the average globular cluster in a galaxy. One object turns out to be particularly useful: the type Ia supernova. These supernovae involve the explosion of a white dwarf in a binary system (see The Evolution of Binary Star Systems) Observations show that supernovae of this type all reach nearly the same luminosity (about 4.5 × 109 LSun) at maximum light. With such tremendous luminosities, these supernovae have been detected out to a distance of more than 8 billion light-years and are therefore especially attractive to astronomers as a way of determining distances on a large scale (Figure 26.12).

Type Ia Supernova. The very bright star to the left of center is a type Ia supernova at the outskirts of the spiral galaxy seen at upper right.
Figure 26.12 Type Ia Supernova. The bright object at the bottom left of center is a type Ia supernova near its peak intensity. The supernova easily outshines its host galaxy. This extreme increase and luminosity help astronomers use Ia supernova as standard bulbs. (credit: NASA, ESA, A. Riess (STScI))

Several other kinds of standard bulbs visible over great distances have also been suggested, including the overall brightness of, for example, giant ellipticals and the brightest member of a galaxy cluster. Type Ia supernovae, however, have proved to be the most accurate standard bulbs, and they can be seen in more distant galaxies than the other types of calibrators. As we will see in the chapter on The Big Bang, observations of this type of supernova have profoundly changed our understanding of the evolution of the universe.

Other Measuring Techniques

Another technique for measuring galactic distances makes use of an interesting relationship noticed in the late 1970s by Brent Tully of the University of Hawaii and Richard Fisher of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. They discovered that the luminosity of a spiral galaxy is related to its rotational velocity (how fast it spins). Why would this be true?

The more mass a galaxy has, the faster the objects in its outer regions must orbit. A more massive galaxy has more stars in it and is thus more luminous (ignoring dark matter for a moment). Thinking back to our discussion from the previous section, we can say that if the mass-to-light ratios for various spiral galaxies are pretty similar, then we can estimate the luminosity of a spiral galaxy by measuring its mass, and we can estimate its mass by measuring its rotational velocity.

Tully and Fisher used the 21-cm line of cold hydrogen gas to determine how rapidly material in spiral galaxies is orbiting their centers (you can review our discussion of the 21-cm line in Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space). Since 21-cm radiation from stationary atoms comes in a nice narrow line, the width of the 21-cm line produced by a whole rotating galaxy tells us the range of orbital velocities of the galaxy’s hydrogen gas. The broader the line, the faster the gas is orbiting in the galaxy, and the more massive and luminous the galaxy turns out to be.

It is somewhat surprising that this technique works, since much of the mass associated with galaxies is dark matter, which does not contribute at all to the luminosity but does affect the rotation speed. There is also no obvious reason why the mass-to-light ratio should be similar for all spiral galaxies. Nevertheless, observations of nearer galaxies (where we have other ways of measuring distance) show that measuring the rotational velocity of a galaxy provides an accurate estimate of its intrinsic luminosity. Once we know how luminous the galaxy really is, we can compare the luminosity to the apparent brightness and use the difference to calculate its distance.

While the Tully-Fisher relation works well, it is limited—we can only use it to determine the distance to a spiral galaxy. There are other methods that can be used to estimate the distance to an elliptical galaxy; however, those methods are beyond the scope of our introductory astronomy course.

Table 26.2 lists the type of galaxy for which each of the distance techniques is useful, and the range of distances over which the technique can be applied.

Some Methods for Estimating Distance to Galaxies
Method Galaxy Type Approximate Distance Range (millions of light-years)
Planetary nebulae All 0–70
Cepheid variables Spiral, irregulars 0–110
Tully-Fisher relation Spiral 0–300
Type Ia supernovae All 0–11,000
Redshifts (Hubble’s law) All 300–13,000
Table 26.2
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