How large is the universe? What is the most distant object we can see? These are among the most fundamental questions astronomers can ask. But just as babies must crawl before they can take their first halting steps, so too must we start with a more modest question: How far away are the stars? And even this question proves to be very hard to answer. After all, stars are mere points of light. Suppose you see a point of light in the darkness when you are driving on a country road late at night. How can you tell whether it is a nearby firefly, an oncoming motorcycle some distance away, or the porchlight of a house much farther down the road? It’s not so easy, is it? Astronomers faced an even more difficult problem when they tried to estimate how far away the stars are.
In this chapter, we begin with the fundamental definitions of distances on Earth and then extend our reach outward to the stars. We will also examine the newest satellites that are surveying the night sky and discuss the special types of stars that can be used as trail markers to distant galaxies.
- 19.1: Fundamental Units of Distance
- Early measurements of length were based on human dimensions, but today, we use worldwide standards that specify lengths in units such as the meter. Distances within the solar system are now determined by timing how long it takes radar signals to travel from Earth to the surface of a planet or other body and then return.
- 19.2: Surveying the Stars
- For stars that are relatively nearby, we can “triangulate” the distances from a baseline created by Earth’s annual motion around the Sun. Half the shift in a nearby star’s position relative to very distant background stars, as viewed from opposite sides of Earth’s orbit, is called the parallax of that star and is a measure of its distance. Parallax measurements are a fundamental link in the chain of cosmic distances.
- 19.3: Variable Stars: One Key to Cosmic Distances
- Cepheids and RR Lyrae stars are two types of pulsating variable stars. Light curves of these stars show that their luminosities vary with a regularly repeating period. RR Lyrae stars can be used as standard bulbs, and cepheid variables obey a period-luminosity relation, so measuring their periods can tell us their luminosities. Then, we can calculate their distances by comparing their luminosities with their apparent brightnesses, and this can allow us to measure distances to these stars out to
- 19.4: The H-R and Cosmic Distances
- Stars with identical temperatures but different pressures (and diameters) have somewhat different spectra. Spectral classification can therefore be used to estimate the luminosity class of a star as well as its temperature. As a result, a spectrum can allow us to pinpoint where the star is located on an H–R diagram and establish its luminosity. This, with the star’s apparent brightness, again yields its distance. The various distance methods can be used to check one against another.
Thumbnail: This beautiful image shows a giant cluster of stars called Messier 80, located about 28,000 light-years from Earth. Such crowded groups, which astronomers call globular clusters, contain hundreds of thousands of stars, including some of the RR Lyrae variables discussed in this chapter. Especially obvious in this picture are the bright red giants, which are stars similar to the Sun in mass that are nearing the ends of their lives. (credit: modification of work by The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/ STScI/ NASA)).
Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College), David Morrison (NASA Ames Research Center), Sidney C. Wolff (National Optical Astronomy Observatory) with many contributing authors. Textbook content produced by OpenStax College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. Download for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/astronomy).