How far away is everybody? Climbing the cosmic distance ladder

We know the universe is vast, but how do we measure the distances between things? Dave Scrimshaw.

Let’s talk numbers for a moment.

The moon is approximately 384,000 kilometres away, and the sun is approximately 150 million kilometres away. The mean distance between Earth and the sun is known as the “astronomical unit” (AU). Neptune, the most distant planet, then, is 30 AU from the sun.

The nearest stars to Earth are 1,000 times more distant, roughly 4.3 light-years away (one light-year being the distance that light travels in 365.25 days – just under 10 trillion kilometres).

The Milky Way galaxy consists of some 300 billion stars in a spiral-shaped disk roughly 100,000 light-years across.

The Andromeda Galaxy, which can be seen with many home telescopes, is 2.54 million light years away. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

At present, the most distant observed galaxy is some 13.2 billion light-years away, formed not long after the Big Bang, 13.75 billion years ago (plus or minus 0.011 billion years).

The scope of the universe was illustrated by the astrophysicist Geraint Lewis in a recent Conversation article.

He noted that, if the entire Milky Way galaxy was represented by a small coin one centimetre across, the Andromeda Galaxy would be another small coin 25 centimetres away.

Going by this scale, the observable universe would extend for 5 kilometres in every direction, encompassing some 300 billion galaxies.

But how can scientists possibly calculate these enormous distances with any confidence?

Parallax

One technique is known as parallax. If you cover one eye and note the position of a nearby object, compared with more distant objects, the nearby object “moves” when you view it with the other eye. This is parallax (see below).

Booyabazooka

The same principle is used in astronomy. As Earth travels around the sun, relatively close stars are observed to move slightly, with respect to other fixed stars that are more distant.

Distance measurements can be made in this way for stars up to about 1,000 light-years away.

Standard candles

For more distant objects such as galaxies, astronomers rely on “standard candles” – bright objects that are known to have a fixed absolute luminosity (brightness).

Since light flux falls off as the square of the distance, by measuring the actual brightness observed on Earth astronomers can calculate the distance.

One type of standard candle, which has been used since the 1920s, is Cepheid variable stars.

Distances determined using this scheme are believed accurate to within about 7% for more nearby galaxies, and 15-20% for the most distant galaxies.

Type Ia supernovas

In recent years scientists have used Type Ia supernovae. These occur in a binary star system when a white dwarf star starts to attract matter from a larger red dwarf star.

As the white dwarf gains more and more matter, it eventually undergoes a runaway nuclear explosion that may briefly outshine an entire galaxy.

Because this process can occur only within a very narrow range of total mass, the absolute luminosity of Type Ia supernovas is very predictable. The uncertainty in these measurements is typically 5%.

In August, worldwide attention was focused on a Type Ia supernova that exploded in the Pinwheel Galaxy (known as M101), a beautiful spiral galaxy located just above the handle of the Big Dipper in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the closest supernova to the earth since the 1987 supernova, which was visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

These and other techniques for astronomical measurements, collectively known as the “cosmic distance ladder”, are described in an excellent Wikipedia article. Such multiple schemes lend an additional measure of reliability to these measurements.

In short, distances to astronomical objects have been measured with a high degree of reliability, using calculations that mostly employ only high-school mathematics.

Thus the overall conclusion of a universe consisting of billions of galaxies, most of them many millions or even billions of light-years away, is now considered beyond reasonable doubt.

Right tools for the job

The kind of distances we’re dealing with above do cause consternation for some since, as we peer millions of light-years into space, we are also peering millions of years into the past.

Some creationists, for instance, have theorised that, in about 4,000 BCE, a Creator placed quadrillions of photons in space en route to Earth, with patterns suggestive of supernova explosions and other events millions of years ago.

Needless to say, most observers reject this notion. Kenneth Miller of Brown University commented, “Their [Creationists’] version of God is one who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality.”

There are plenty of things in the universe to marvel at, and plenty of tools to help us understand them. That should be enough to keep us engaged for now.

An extended version of this article first appeared at Math Drudge.