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Astronomy

26.5 The Expanding Universe

Astronomy26.5 The Expanding Universe
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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 discovery that galaxies getting farther apart as the universe evolves
  • Explain how to use Hubble’s law to determine distances to remote galaxies
  • Describe models for the nature of an expanding universe
  • Explain the variation in Hubble’s constant

We now come to one of the most important discoveries ever made in astronomy—the fact that the universe is expanding. Before we describe how the discovery was made, we should point out that the first steps in the study of galaxies came at a time when the techniques of spectroscopy were also making great strides. Astronomers using large telescopes could record the spectrum of a faint star or galaxy on photographic plates, guiding their telescopes so they remained pointed to the same object for many hours and collected more light. The resulting spectra of galaxies contained a wealth of information about the composition of the galaxy and the velocities of these great star systems.

Slipher’s Pioneering Observations

Curiously, the discovery of the expansion of the universe began with the search for Martians and other solar systems. In 1894, the controversial (and wealthy) astronomer Percival Lowell established an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the planets and search for life in the universe. Lowell thought that the spiral nebulae might be solar systems in the process of formation. He therefore asked one of the observatory’s young astronomers, Vesto M. Slipher (Figure 26.13), to photograph the spectra of some of the spiral nebulae to see if their spectral lines might show chemical compositions like those expected for newly forming planets.

Photograph of Vesto M. Slipher.
Figure 26.13 Vesto M. Slipher (1875–1969). Slipher spent his entire career at the Lowell Observatory, where he discovered the large radial velocities of galaxies. (credit: Lowell Observatory)

The Lowell Observatory’s major instrument was a 24-inch refracting telescope, which was not at all well suited to observations of faint spiral nebulae. With the technology available in those days, photographic plates had to be exposed for 20 to 40 hours to produce a good spectrum (in which the positions of the lines could reveal a galaxy’s motion). This often meant continuing to expose the same photograph over several nights. Beginning in 1912, and making heroic efforts over a period of about 20 years, Slipher managed to photograph the spectra of more than 40 of the spiral nebulae (which would all turn out to be galaxies).

To his surprise, the spectral lines of most galaxies showed an astounding redshift. By “redshift” we mean that the lines in the spectra are displaced toward longer wavelengths (toward the red end of the visible spectrum). Recall from the chapter on Radiation and Spectra that a redshift is seen when the source of the waves is moving away from us. Slipher’s observations showed that most spirals are racing away at huge speeds; the highest velocity he measured was 1800 kilometers per second.

Only a few spirals—such as the Andromeda and Triangulum Galaxies and M81—all of which are now known to be our close neighbors, turned out to be approaching us. All the other galaxies were moving away. Slipher first announced this discovery in 1914, years before Hubble showed that these objects were other galaxies and before anyone knew how far away they were. No one at the time quite knew what to make of this discovery.

Hubble’s Law

The profound implications of Slipher’s work became apparent only during the 1920s. Georges Lemaître was a Belgian priest and a trained astronomer. In 1927, he published a paper in French in an obscure Belgian journal in which he suggested that we live in an expanding universe. The title of the paper (translated into English) is “A Homogenous Universe of Constant Mass and Growing Radius Accounting for the Radial Velocity of Extragalactic Nebulae.” Lemaître had discovered that Einstein’s equations of relativity were consistent with an expanding universe (as had the Russian scientist Alexander Friedmann independently in 1922). Lemaître then went on to use Slipher’s data to support the hypothesis that the universe actually is expanding and to estimate the rate of expansion. Initially, scientists paid little attention to this paper, perhaps because the Belgian journal was not widely available.

In the meantime, Hubble was making observations of galaxies with the 2.5-meter telescope on Mt. Wilson, which was then the world’s largest. Hubble carried out the key observations in collaboration with a remarkable man, Milton Humason, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and began his astronomical career by driving a mule train up the trail on Mount Wilson to the observatory (Figure 26.14). In those early days, supplies had to be brought up that way; even astronomers hiked up to the mountaintop for their turns at the telescope. Humason became interested in the work of the astronomers and, after marrying the daughter of the observatory’s electrician, took a job as janitor there. After a time, he became a night assistant, helping the astronomers run the telescope and record data. Eventually, he made such a mark that he became a full astronomer at the observatory.

Photograph of Milton Humason.
Figure 26.14 Milton Humason (1891–1972). Humason was Hubble’s collaborator on the great task of observing, measuring, and classifying the characteristics of many galaxies. (credit: Caltech Archives)

By the late 1920s, Humason was collaborating with Hubble by photographing the spectra of faint galaxies with the 2.5-meter telescope. (By then, there was no question that the spiral nebulae were in fact galaxies.) Hubble had found ways to improve the accuracy of the estimates of distances to spiral galaxies, and he was able to measure much fainter and more distant galaxies than Slipher could observe with his much-smaller telescope. When Hubble laid his own distance estimates next to measurements of the recession velocities (the speed with which the galaxies were moving away), he found something stunning: there was a relationship between distance and velocity for galaxies. The more distant the galaxy, the faster it was receding from us.

In 1931, Hubble and Humason jointly published the seminal paper where they compared distances and velocities of remote galaxies moving away from us at speeds as high as 20,000 kilometers per second and were able to show that the recession velocities of galaxies are directly proportional to their distances from us (Figure 26.15), just as Lemaître had suggested.

Hubble’s Law. The plot in panel (a), at left, is labeled “Hubble’s Data (1929)” and has the vertical axis labeled “Velocity (km/s)”, running from -500 at bottom to 1500 at top in increments of 500 km/s. The horizontal axis is labeled “Distance (millions of LY)”, and runs from zero at left to 6 at right in increments of 3 million light years. The data is plotted as red dots, with the mean drawn as a red line beginning at 0 LY, 0 km/s at lower left to 6 MLY, 1000 km/s at upper right. The plot in panel (b), at right, is labeled “Hubble and Humason (1931)” and has the vertical axis labeled “Velocity (km/s)”, running from zero at bottom to 20,000 at top in increments of 5,000 km/s. The horizontal axis is labeled “Distance (millions of LY)”, and runs from zero at left to 120 at right in increments of 30 million LY. The data is plotted as black dots, with the mean drawn as a black line beginning at 0 LY, 0 km/s at lower left to 100 MLY, 19,000 km/s at upper right. The data from panel (a) are plotted in red at lower left.
Figure 26.15 Hubble’s Law. (a) These data show Hubble’s original velocity-distance relation, adapted from his 1929 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (b) These data show Hubble and Humason’s velocity-distance relation, adapted from their 1931 paper in The Astrophysical Journal. The red dots at the lower left are the points in the diagram in the 1929 paper. Comparison of the two graphs shows how rapidly the determination of galactic distances and redshifts progressed in the 2 years between these publications.

We now know that this relationship holds for every galaxy except a few of the nearest ones. Nearly all of the galaxies that are approaching us turn out to be part of the Milky Way’s own group of galaxies, which have their own individual motions, just as birds flying in a group may fly in slightly different directions at slightly different speeds even though the entire flock travels through space together.

Written as a formula, the relationship between velocity and distance is

V=H×dV=H×d

where v is the recession speed, d is the distance, and H is a number called the Hubble constant. This equation is now known as Hubble’s law.

Astronomy Basics

Constants of Proportionality

Mathematical relationships such as Hubble’s law are pretty common in life. To take a simple example, suppose your college or university hires you to call rich alumni and ask for donations. You are paid $2.50 for each call; the more calls you can squeeze in between studying astronomy and other courses, the more money you take home. We can set up a formula that connects p, your pay, and n, the number of calls

p=A×np=A×n

where A is the alumni constant, with a value of $2.50. If you make 20 calls, you will earn $2.50 times 20, or $50.

Suppose your boss forgets to tell you what you will get paid for each call. You can calculate the alumni constant that governs your pay by keeping track of how many calls you make and noting your gross pay each week. If you make 100 calls the first week and are paid $250, you can deduce that the constant is $2.50 (in units of dollars per call). Hubble, of course, had no “boss” to tell him what his constant would be—he had to calculate its value from the measurements of distance and velocity.

Astronomers express the value of Hubble’s constant in units that relate to how they measure speed and velocity for galaxies. In this book, we will use kilometers per second per million light-years as that unit. For many years, estimates of the value of the Hubble constant have been in the range of 15 to 30 kilometers per second per million light-years The most recent work appears to be converging on a value near 22 kilometers per second per million light-years If H is 22 kilometers per second per million light-years, a galaxy moves away from us at a speed of 22 kilometers per second for every million light-years of its distance. As an example, a galaxy 100 million light-years away is moving away from us at a speed of 2200 kilometers per second.

Hubble’s law tells us something fundamental about the universe. Since all but the nearest galaxies appear to be in motion away from us, with the most distant ones moving the fastest, we must be living in an expanding universe. We will explore the implications of this idea shortly, as well as in the final chapters of this text. For now, we will just say that Hubble’s observation underlies all our theories about the origin and evolution of the universe.

Hubble’s Law and Distances

The regularity expressed in Hubble’s law has a built-in bonus: it gives us a new way to determine the distances to remote galaxies. First, we must reliably establish Hubble’s constant by measuring both the distance and the velocity of many galaxies in many directions to be sure Hubble’s law is truly a universal property of galaxies. But once we have calculated the value of this constant and are satisfied that it applies everywhere, much more of the universe opens up for distance determination. Basically, if we can obtain a spectrum of a galaxy, we can immediately tell how far away it is.

The procedure works like this. We use the spectrum to measure the speed with which the galaxy is moving away from us. If we then put this speed and the Hubble constant into Hubble’s law equation, we can solve for the distance.

Example 26.1

Hubble’s Law Hubble’s law (v = H × d) allows us to calculate the distance to any galaxy. Here is how we use it in practice.

We have measured Hubble’s constant to be 22 km/s per million light-years. This means that if a galaxy is 1 million light-years farther away, it will move away 22 km/s faster. So, if we find a galaxy that is moving away at 18,000 km/s, what does Hubble’s law tells us about the distance to the galaxy?

Solution

d=vH=18,000km/s22km/s1million light-years=18,00022×1million light-years1=818million light-yearsd=vH=18,000km/s22km/s1million light-years=18,00022×1million light-years1=818million light-years

Note how we handled the units here: the km/s in the numerator and denominator cancel, and the factor of million light-years in the denominator of the constant must be divided correctly before we get our distance of 818 million light-years.

Check Your Learning Using 22 km/s/million light-years for Hubble’s constant, what recessional velocity do we expect to find if we observe a galaxy at 500 million light-years?

Answer:

v=d×H=500million light-years×22km/s1million light-years=11,000km/sv=d×H=500million light-years×22km/s1million light-years=11,000km/s

Variation of Hubble’s Constant

The use of redshift is potentially a very important technique for determining distances because as we have seen, most of our methods for determining galaxy distances are limited to approximately the nearest few hundred million light-years (and they have large uncertainties at these distances). The use of Hubble’s law as a distance indicator requires only a spectrum of a galaxy and a measurement of the Doppler shift, and with large telescopes and modern spectrographs, spectra can be taken of extremely faint galaxies.

But, as is often the case in science, things are not so simple. This technique works if, and only if, the Hubble constant has been truly constant throughout the entire life of the universe. When we observe galaxies billions of light-years away, we are seeing them as they were billions of years ago. What if the Hubble “constant” was different billions of years ago? Before 1998, astronomers thought that, although the universe is expanding, the expansion should be slowing down, or decelerating, because the overall gravitational pull of all matter in the universe would have a dominant, measureable effect. If the expansion is decelerating, then the Hubble constant should be decreasing over time.

The discovery that type Ia supernovae are standard bulbs gave astronomers the tool they needed to observe extremely distant galaxies and measure the rate of expansion billions of years ago. The results were completely unexpected. It turns out that the expansion of the universe is accelerating over time! What makes this result so astounding is that there is no way that existing physical theories can account for this observation. While a decelerating universe could easily be explained by gravity, there was no force or property in the universe known to astronomers that could account for the acceleration. In The Big Bang chapter, we will look in more detail at the observations that led to this totally unexpected result and explore its implications for the ultimate fate of the universe.

In any case, if the Hubble constant is not really a constant when we look over large spans of space and time, then the calculation of galaxy distances using the Hubble constant won’t be accurate. As we shall see in the chapter on The Big Bang, the accurate calculation of distances requires a model for how the Hubble constant has changed over time. The farther away a galaxy is (and the longer ago we are seeing it), the more important it is to include the effects of the change in the Hubble constant. For galaxies within a few billion light-years, however, the assumption that the Hubble constant is indeed constant gives good estimates of distance.

Models for an Expanding Universe

At first, thinking about Hubble’s law and being a fan of the work of Copernicus and Harlow Shapley, you might be shocked. Are all the galaxies really moving away from us? Is there, after all, something special about our position in the universe? Worry not; the fact that galaxies are receding from us and that more distant galaxies are moving away more rapidly than nearby ones shows only that the universe is expanding uniformly.

A uniformly expanding universe is one that is expanding at the same rate everywhere. In such a universe, we and all other observers, no matter where they are located, must observe a proportionality between the velocities and distances of equivalently remote galaxies. (Here, we are ignoring the fact that the Hubble constant is not constant over all time, but if at any given time in the evolution of the universe the Hubble constant has the same value everywhere, this argument still works.)

To see why, first imagine a ruler made of stretchable rubber, with the usual lines marked off at each centimeter. Now suppose someone with strong arms grabs each end of the ruler and slowly stretches it so that, say, it doubles in length in 1 minute (Figure 26.16). Consider an intelligent ant sitting on the mark at 2 centimeters—a point that is not at either end nor in the middle of the ruler. He measures how fast other ants, sitting at the 4-, 7-, and 12-centimeter marks, move away from him as the ruler stretches.

Stretching a Ruler. In this illustration, the ruler at top is normal sized, and has ants drawn at 2, 4, 7 and 12 cm. The same ruler is drawn below, but stretched to twice its length. The ants are still at their positions as above, but the ant at 2 cm sees the ant at 4 cm move away at 2 cm/min, the ant at 7 cm move away at 5 cm/min and the ant at 12 cm move away at 10 cm/min.
Figure 26.16 Stretching a Ruler. Ants on a stretching ruler see other ants move away from them. The speed with which another ant moves away is proportional to its distance.

The ant at 4 centimeters, originally 2 centimeters away from our ant, has doubled its distance in 1 minute; it therefore moved away at a speed of 2 centimeters per minute. The ant at the 7-centimeters mark, which was originally 5 centimeters away from our ant, is now 10 centimeters away; it thus had to move at 5 centimeters per minute. The one that started at the 12-centimeters mark, which was 10 centimeters away from the ant doing the counting, is now 20 centimeters away, meaning it must have raced away at a speed of 10 centimeters per minute. Ants at different distances move away at different speeds, and their speeds are proportional to their distances (just as Hubble’s law indicates for galaxies). Yet, notice in our example that all the ruler was doing was stretching uniformly. Also, notice that none of the ants were actually moving of their own accord, it was the stretching of the ruler that moved them apart.

Now let’s repeat the analysis, but put the intelligent ant on some other mark—say, on 7 or 12 centimeters. We discover that, as long as the ruler stretches uniformly, this ant also finds every other ant moving away at a speed proportional to its distance. In other words, the kind of relationship expressed by Hubble’s law can be explained by a uniform stretching of the “world” of the ants. And all the ants in our simple diagram will see the other ants moving away from them as the ruler stretches.

For a three-dimensional analogy, let’s look at the loaf of raisin bread in Figure 26.17. The chef has accidentally put too much yeast in the dough, and when she sets the bread out to rise, it doubles in size during the next hour, causing all the raisins to move farther apart. On the figure, we again pick a representative raisin (that is not at the edge or the center of the loaf) and show the distances from it to several others in the figure (before and after the loaf expands).

Expanding Raisin Bread. In this illustration, the loaf of raisin bread at left is 30 cm wide. Arrows are drawn from a “reference” raisin located to the left of center to four other raisins within the loaf, with distances indicated. Clockwise from upper left: 3 cm, 16 cm, 25 cm and 7 cm from the reference. At right, the loaf has expanded to 60 cm wide. The distances from the “reference” raisin have increased accordingly. Clockwise from upper left: 6 cm, 32 cm, 50 cm and 14 cm.
Figure 26.17 Expanding Raisin Bread. As the raisin bread rises, the raisins “see” other raisins moving away. More distant raisins move away faster in a uniformly expanding bread.

Measure the increases in distance and calculate the speeds for yourself on the raisin bread, just like we did for the ruler. You will see that, since each distance doubles during the hour, each raisin moves away from our selected raisin at a speed proportional to its distance. The same is true no matter which raisin you start with.

Our two analogies are useful for clarifying our thinking, but you must not take them literally. On both the ruler and the raisin bread, there are points that are at the end or edge. You can use these to pinpoint the middle of the ruler and the loaf. While our models of the universe have some resemblance to the properties of the ruler and the loaf, the universe has no boundaries, no edges, and no center (all mind-boggling ideas that we will discuss in a later chapter).

What is useful to notice about both the ants and the raisins is that they themselves did not “cause” their motion. It isn’t as if the raisins decided to take a trip away from each other and then hopped on a hoverboard to get away. No, in both our analogies, it was the stretching of the medium (the ruler or the bread) that moved the ants or the raisins farther apart. In the same way, we will see in The Big Bang chapter that the galaxies don’t have rocket motors propelling them away from each other. Instead, they are passive participants in the expansion of space. As space stretches, the galaxies are carried farther and farther apart much as the ants and the raisins were. (If this notion of the “stretching” of space surprises or bothers you, now would be a good time to review the information about spacetime in Black Holes and Curved Spacetime. We will discuss these ideas further as our discussion broadens from galaxies to the whole universe.)

The expansion of the universe, by the way, does not imply that the individual galaxies and clusters of galaxies themselves are expanding. Neither raisins nor the ants in our analogy grow in size as the loaf expands. Similarly, gravity holds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together, and they get farther away from each other—without themselves changing in size—as the universe expands.

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