Three Lampposts
If you are standing on a street lined with lampposts, the more distant ones will appear increasingly dimmer.

To find distances in space, astronomers use objects called "standard candles." Standard candles are objects that give a certain, known amount of light. Because astronomers know how bright these objects truly are, they can measure their distance from us by analyzing how dim they appear.

For example, say you're standing on a street evenly lined with lampposts. According to a formula known as the inverse square law, the second streetlamp will look one-fourth as bright as the first streetlamp, and the third streetlamp will look one-ninth as bright as the first streetlamp, and so on. By judging the dimness of their light, you can easily guess how far away the streetlamps are as they stretch into the distance.

For short distances in space — within our galaxy or within our local group of nearby galaxies — astronomers use a type of star called a Cepheid variable as a standard candle. These young stars pulse with a brightness that tightly relates to the time between pulses. By observing the way the star pulses, astronomers can calculate its actual brightness.

But beyond the local group of galaxies, telescopes can't make out individual stars. They can only discern large groups of stars. To measure distances to far-flung galaxies, therefore, astronomers need to find incredibly bright objects.


Written in the Stars

Type Ia Supernova Formation
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Three Galaxies
Scientists can find distances to galaxies by studying the dimness of Type Ia supernovae, which give off a standard amount of light.

So astronomers turn to exploding stars, called supernovae. Supernovae, which occur within a galaxy about every 100 years, are among the brightest events in the sky. When a star explodes, it releases so much energy that it can briefly outshine all the stars in its galaxy. In fact, we can sometimes see a supernova occur even if we can't see its home galaxy.

To determine distances, astronomers use a certain type of exploding star called a Type Ia supernova. Type Ia supernovae occur in a binary system — two stars orbiting one another. One of the stars in the system must be a white dwarf star, the dense, carbon remains of a star that was about the size of our Sun. The other can be a giant star or even a smaller white dwarf.

White dwarf stars are one of the densest forms of matter, second only to neutron stars and black holes. Just a teaspoon of matter from a white dwarf would weigh five tons. Because white dwarf stars are so dense, their gravity is particularly intense. The white dwarf will begin to pull material off its companion star, adding that matter to itself.

When the white dwarf reaches 1.4 solar masses, or about 40 percent more massive than our Sun, a nuclear chain reaction occurs, causing the white dwarf to explode. The resulting light is 5 billion times brighter than the Sun.

Because the chain reaction always happens in the same way, and at the same mass, the brightness of these Type Ia supernovae are also always the same. The explosion point is known as the Chandrasekhar limit, after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the astronomer who discovered it.

To find the distance to the galaxy that contains the supernova, scientists just have to compare how bright they know the explosion should be with how bright the explosion appears. Using the inverse square law, they can compute the distance to the supernova and thus to the supernova's home galaxy.

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