Variable Star Astronomy
Variable stars are stars whose brightness changes because of physical changes within the star. There exist more than 30,000 variable stars in just the Milky Way. Variable star astronomy is a popular part of astronomy because amateur astronomers play a key role. They have submitted thousands of observed data and these data are logged onto a database. American readers can find information on it on the American Association of Variable Star Observers page.
One of such variable stars are called Cepheids. Cepheids are pulsating variable stars because they undergo a “repetitive expansion and contraction of their outer layers” . In Cepheids, the star’s period of variation (about 1-70 days) is related to its luminosity; the longer the period, the higher the luminosity. In fact, when graphed, the relationship is shown by a straight line (as can be seen on the title image). Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer, first discovered this and understood the significance of this knowledge. Combined with understanding of the star’s apparent magnitude (a previously written post on this subject can be found here), astronomers can use this information to find a star’s distance from Earth. Cepheids are famously known for their usefulness in finding distances to far-away galaxies and other deep sky objects. Leavitt died early from cancer but was to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics by Professor Mittag-Leffler (Swedish Academy of Sciences).
Edwin Hubble used Leavitt’s discovery to prove that the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is not part of the Milky Way, but was able to find the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy (between 2-9 million light years away). At first his calculation was incorrect (900,000 light years) because he observed Type I (classical) Cepheid Stars. Type I Cepheid stars are brighter, newer Population I stars. Hubble later used type II Cepheids (also called W Virginis stars), which are smaller, dimmer, Population II stars, and he was able to make more accurate calculations.
To determine the star’s distance, use the inverse square law of light brightness.
A similar type of star are RR Lyrae Variable Stars. They are smaller than Cepheids and have a much shorter period (from a few hours to a day). On the other hand, they are far more common. Likewise, they can be used to solve for distances as well. Low mass stars live longer, and thus Cepheid stars are generally younger because they are more massive.
Both Cepheids and RR Lyrae Variable stars are referred to as standard candles: objects with known luminosity. If you’ve ever wondered how astronomers came to those enormous figures when describing how far away galaxies and stars are from us, you can now better understand why and how.