Measuring the Universe: the Cosmological Distance Ladder

Book cover - Measuring the Universe

The early rungs of the distance ladder — distance scales on Earth, in the solar system, and to the nearest stars and galaxies — are well established. My book serves as a solid grounding for understanding these early rungs.

But science always progresses. This blog lets me discuss some of the newer distance-measuring techniques not in the book – such as the use of baryon acoustic oscillations as a standard ruler.


A new standard candle?

Standard candles have played a hugely important role in establishing the cosmological distance ladder. It’s easy to see why: the more distant something is the dimmer it appears, according to the inverse-square law. So if we know how bright something really is then, by measuring how bright it appears to be, we can determine its distance.

A standard candle appears dimmer the more distant it is

A standard candle appears dimmer the more distant it is
Credit: Karen Kwitter

Cepheid variables and Type Ia supernovae are perhaps the most well-known standard candles, and the study of these objects have transformed our understanding of the universe. But they (and the several other standard candles used in astronomy) are not without problems. One of the main difficulties is that we can’t see them over very large distances. Even Type Ia supernovae cannot be used to make reliable distance measurements beyond a redshift of about 1.7. So one of the most interesting astronomical results of 2011, at least in my opinion, was the surprising discovery of a standard candle that can work over truly cosmological distance scales: active galactic nuclei (AGNs).

Artist's impression of an accretion disc and torus around a black hole

An artist's impression of an accretion disc and torus around an AGN
Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

An AGN is one of the brightest objects in the universe and so can be seen over extreme distances. The power source for an AGN’s extreme luminosity is the supermassive black hole that lies at its centre. An accretion disc – a collection of matter that forms as matter spirals into a dense object – surrounds an AGN’s supermassive black hole. (See chapter 4 of New Eyes on the Universe for an explanation of accretion discs.) Further away from the black hole, at least with type-1 AGNs, lies a dense area of dust and gas known as the broad-line region. The region gets its name because the black hole’s gravitational influence whips the dust and gas around at high speed, and the Doppler effect causes emission lines to be broadened.

And how does this rather chaotic set-up generate a standard candle? Well, the broad-line region emits light because its gas has been ionised. The ionisation occurs because high-energy photons are emitted by the accretion disc and subsequently hit the region. The key point here is an accretion disc is a variable object: sometimes it ‘flares’. This makes it possible to compare the time at which the accretion disc emits light and the broad-line region re-emits light, and that time delay gives the radius of the broad-line region. What four astronomers – Darach Watson, Kelly Denney, Marianne Vestergaard and Tamara Davis – have found is that there’s a relationship between the size of the radius and the central luminosity of the AGN. They checked the relationship on a sample of 38 AGNs at a known distance and it seems that, although there is scatter in the data, the technique will work as a distance indicator. (You can read their paper at arxiv.)

The AGN standard candle is not as accurate as the Cepheid or supernova candles. But since AGNs can be seen over tremendous distances, and since they can be studied over long periods of time, it seems certain that the technique will become of increasing importance. In particular, a standard candle that lets astronomers measure distances directly up to a redshift of about 4 will provide a valuable tool for probing the nature of dark energy.

Mapping the Galaxy

In Measuring the Universe I described the ESA Hipparcos mission in detail. Hipparcos was the first space-based mission dedicated to astrometry: it mapped the precise position of 100000 stars, and by doing so helped firm one of the first steps on the cosmological distance ladder. In the book I wrote that:

“the success of Hipparcos has led ESA … to consider further space astrometry missions. A proposed ESA mission, cclled the Global Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics (GAIA), would measure the parallaxes of one billion stars down to magnitude 20, with a precision 100 times better than that of Hipparcos.”

I gave two possible launch dates for GAIA: 2009 or 2014. When I wrote the book, both dates seemed impossibly distant. But time passes, and GAIA is on track for launch on board a Soyuz rocket in 2013.

Gaia mission will measure positions of one billion stars in the Galaxy

An artist's impression of the Gaia mission
Credit: ESA

In September 2011, the mission team took receipt of the last of ten state-of-the-art mirrors. These mirrors will form the heart of a system that will study a billion stars in our Galaxy, observing each star 70 times in order to pinpoint its location. The GAIA catalogue, which will be finalised some time in 2021, will provide us with a superb three-dimensional map of the Galaxy. The value of this map won’t be so much in developing our understanding of the distance ladder; rather, it will tell us volumes about how the Milky Way formed and subsequently evolved.

Keep an eye out for GAIA.