The Cosmic Distance Ladder, part 1…

For the past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my position as Manager of the UNH Observatory, in helping to prepare for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival. The event, lovingly known as NEFAF, is a family-friendly astronomy-related event that will be hosted by the UNH Physics Department in partnership with the New Hampshire Astronomical Society. As you can imagine, this is quite an undertaking, but in an incredibly exciting turn of events, we just found out that Dr. Alex Filippenko, noted astronomer from UC-Berkeley and member of the research team that won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, will be giving the keynote talk at NEFAF 2012! In addition to being a highly acclaimed professor, Filippenko is also the co-author of an extremely popular astronomy textbook and a frequent contributor to the documentary series The Universe on The History Channel.

Dr. Alex Filippenko, the newly announced keynote speaker for the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival to be held at the UNH Observatory.

That extremely exciting news has inspired me to do a couple of posts about the expansion of the universe, the area of research that Dr. Filippenko works on. But before we can really get into talking about that, we need to cover a very basic aspect of astronomy, but something that most non-astronomers don’t really know about. I was at a public session at the Observatory this weekend when a guest who had never studied astronomy before asked me what she thought might be an “ignorant” question: she wanted to know how exactly astronomers knew the distances to objects in space. This is by no means an ignorant question, in fact it’s a very fundamental and very involved question that really gets at the very nature of astronomy.

Astronomy by definition is an observational science. Unlike many other scientific disciplines, astronomers can’t really do experiments in a laboratory (although some do). But the stereotypical astronomer can’t throw his subject (a star or galaxy) on a lab bench and dissect it or set up an experiment to test it, so astronomers need to observe and record data. Okay, so we observe light, that tells us what something looks like, where it is, and how bright it is. Big deal, is that really that helpful scientifically. Well, not really. So we have to come up with ways to get more information from observing the light. The main way we do that is by breaking the light up in a spectrometer, an instrument that breaks light down into a spectrum of colors. This breakdown of light can reveal an abundance of new information including what the object is made up of, how hot it is, how fast and in what direction it’s moving, how old it is, and more.

The question of how astronomers calculate the distance to an astronomical object varies depending on how far away the object is. Because most of these techniques only work up to a certain distance, there is actually a progression of different approaches that astronomers use to measure distance to celestial objects. This list of methods of measuring astronomical distances is known as the Cosmic Distance Ladder (or less poetically, the extragalactic distance scale).

A graphical representation of the distance-measuring techniques that make up the Cosmic Distance Ladder. “1 A.U.” is 1 astronomical unit or approximately 93 million miles, the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A “pc” is a parsec, equal to 3.2 lightyears (206,265 A.U.) or about 20 trillion miles. “Mpc” stands for “Megaparsec” or millions of parsecs. Credit: University of Rochester

In our solar system

The first step in our exploration of the universe was to our own celestial neighborhood. The first step was precise measurement of the size scale of the solar system, which started with the determination of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. As I’ve explained before, this measurement was originally calculated via observations of transits of the planet Venus across the disk of the Sun. Early on in the 20th century, observations of asteroids also played an important role in this measurement. But today the distance from the Earth to the Sun, defined as 1 Astronomical Unit or “AU”, is measured with high precision using radar ranging. By bouncing a radar beam off another planet, usually Venus, and measuring the time that beam takes to return to Earth, scientists can very accurately determine the difference in the size of the two planets’ orbits. Using that difference and the ratio of the two orbital sizes, we can very easily calculate the distance the Earth must be from the Sun. We use a similar process even closer to home. During the Apollo missions of the late 1960s-early 1970s, astronauts deployed the lunar laser ranging experiments, arrays of mirrors that allowed scientists to measure the distance to Earth’s only natural satellite with extreme precision using lasers. This radar ranging is how we’ve calculated the distance to most of the objects in our solar system. More recently, we can also use spacecraft in orbit around other planets as a tape measure by measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel from the spacecraft to its controllers on Earth.

Another  way we can get measure the distance to the planets and to nearby stars is a phenomenon known as stellar parallax. This method is less accurate than radar ranging for planets, but is very good for stars in our local stellar neighborhood. Parallax is something you experience almost every day. Hold your thumb up at arm’s length. Close one eye, then open that one and close the other. Notice how your thumb appears to shift with respect to the objects far off in the distance? That’s parallax! Astronomers take measurements of a planet or star a two points in Earth’s orbit (6 months apart) and measure the angular shift of an object with respect to the background stars between those two measurements. Then, because we know the distance the Earth is from the Sun, we can use some basic geometry to calculate the distance to that star or planet in the foreground.

This diagram shows how parallax is used to find the distance to planets in our solar system and nearby stars. Scientists make two observations 6 months apart, measuring the angle that an object (the red dot) makes with regard to the background stars between the two observations. Then using the distance from the Earth to the Sun (1 A.U.) and some simple geometry, the distance to the object (d) can be calculated. Credit: Hyperphysics

It was using parallax, that Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was able to roughly calculate the distance to Mars in 1672. His calculation was a little bit off though, because instead of taking two measurements 6 months apart, he sent his colleague to Cayenne, French Guiana (on the northern coast of South America) to make observations while he stayed in Paris. Then Cassini could make the same parallax calculation using the known distance between the two observation points (~4400 miles) instead of the distance from the Sun to the Earth. This single direct measurement of the distance to Mars, which is now easily calculated and heavily used by missions such as Curiosity, actually allowed for the calculation of the distances to all the planets. Since geometry and Kepler’s Laws governed the basic ratios the Sun-planet distances, you only needed to measure one Earth-planet distance to be able to easily calculate them all. This major contribution and several others in planetary science (including the discovery of four of Saturn’s moons and joint discovery of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) prompted NASA to name the Saturn-bound spacecraft mission after the him.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini

[To be continued…]

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