Release 442 of 493

Hubble Space Telescope on Track for Measuring the Expansion Rate of the Universe

Release date: May 9, 1996 1:00 PM (EDT)

Using the Hubble telescope, two international teams of astronomers are reporting major progress in converging on an accurate measurement of the universe's rate of expansion - a value that has been debated for over half a century.

These new results yield ranges for the age of the universe from 9-12 billion years and 11-14 billion years, respectively. The black and white photograph from a ground-based telescope shows the entire galaxy. The color image from the Hubble telescope shows a region in NGC 1365, a barred spiral galaxy located in a cluster of galaxies called Fornax. A barred spiral galaxy is characterized by a "bar" of stars, dust, and gas across its center. Astronomers used Cepheid variable stars in Fornax to estimate the cluster's distance from Earth, about 60 million light-years. Cepheids are bright, young stars that are used as milepost markers to calculate distances to nearby galaxies. Galaxy distances are important in calculating the universe's expansion rate and age.

The Full Story
Release date: May 9, 1996
Hubble Space Telescope on Track for Measuring the Expansion Rate of the Universe

Two international teams of astronomers, using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, are reporting major progress in converging on an accurate measurement of the Universe's rate of expansion - a value which has been debated for over half a century.

These new results yield ranges for the age of the Universe from 9-12 billion years, and 11-14 billion years, respectively. The goal of the project is to measure the Hubble Constant to ten percent accuracy.

The Hubble Space Telescope Key Project team, an international group of over 20 astronomers, is led by Wendy Freedman of Carnegie Observatories, Pasadena, CA, Robert Kennicutt, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, and Jeremy Mould, Mount Stromlo and Siding Springs Observatory, Australia. The group's interim results, announced at a meeting held at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, are consistent with their preliminary result, announced in 1994, of 80 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/sec/Mpc), based on observations of a galaxy in the Virgo cluster.

``We have five different ways of measuring the Hubble Constant with HST,'' said Dr. Freedman. "The results are coming in between 68 and 78 km/sec/Mpc." (For example, at an expansion rate of 75 km/sec/Mpc, galaxies appear to be receding from us at a rate of 162,000 miles per hour for every 3.26 million light-years farther out we look).

Two months ago, a second team, led by Allan Sandage, also of the Carnegie Observatories, Abhijit Saha, STScI, Gustav Tammann and Lukas Labhardt, Astronomical Institute, University of Basel, Duccio Macchetto and Nino Panagia, STScI/European Space Agency, reported a slower expansion rate of 57 km/sec/Mpc.

The value of the Hubble Constant allows astronomers to calculate the expansion age of the Universe, the time elapsed since the Big Bang. Astronomers have been arguing recently whether the time since the Big Bang is consistent with the ages of the oldest stars.

The ages are calculated from combining the expansion rate with an estimate of how much matter is in space. The younger age values from each team assume the Universe is at a critical density where it contains just enough matter to expand indefinitely. The higher age estimates are calculated based on a low density of matter in space.

"A point of great interest is whether the age of the Universe arrived at this way is really older than the independently derived ages of the oldest stars," said Saha, an investigator on both Hubble teams.

"The numbers lean on the side that the stellar ages are a little lower, or that the hypothesis that we live in a critical density universe needs to be questioned," said Saha. "As further results accumulate over the next few years, we hope to tighten the constraints on these issues."

The Observations

The Key Project team is midway along in their three-year program to derive the expansion rate of the Universe based on precise distance measurements to galaxies. They have now measured Cepheid distances to a dozen galaxies, and are about halfway through their overall program.

The Key Project team also presented a preliminary estimate of the distance to the Fornax cluster of galaxies. The estimate was obtained through the detection and measurement with the Hubble Space Telescope of pulsating stars known as Cepheid variables found in the Fornax cluster. The Fornax cluster is measured to be approximately as far away as the Virgo cluster of galaxies - about 60 million light-years.

The Key Project team member who led this effort, Caltech astronomer Barry Madore said, ``This cluster allows us to make independent estimates of the expansion rate of the Universe using a number of different techniques. All of these methods are now in excellent agreement. With Fornax we are now at turning point in this field.''

The team is measuring Cepheid distances to the Virgo and Fornax clusters of galaxies as a complementary test. Their strategy is to compare and contrast expansion numbers from a variety of distance indicators.

The Key Project team is systematically looking into a variety of methods for measuring distances. They are using Cepheids in a large sample to tie into five or six ``secondary methods''. One such secondary method relates the total luminosity of a galaxy to the rate at which the galaxy is spinning, the Tully-Fisher relation. Another secondary method makes use of a special class of exploding star known as a type Ia supernova. This phase of the Hubble Constant research will be completed within another two years.

In contrast, the Sandage team focused on a single secondary distance indicator, one of the same indicators also used by the Key Project team, the type Ia supernova. Sandage maintains that these stars are ``standard bombs'' according to theory. He suggests that when they explode they all reach exactly the same intrinsic brightness. This would make them extremely reliable ``standard candles,'' (objects with a well-known intrinsic brightness) visible 1,000 times farther away than Cepheids. Since they are intrinsically brighter than any other standard candle, they offer the opportunity for an accurate measurement of the Universe's overall expansion by looking out the farthest.

Although both teams are still in disagreement over the precise rate at which the Universe is expanding and on how old it is, they are optimistic that their estimates will continue to converge with further observations and analysis.

Members of the Key Project team include W. Freedman (Carnegie Observatories), R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona), J. Mould (Mount Stromlo and Siding Springs Observatories, Australia), L. Ferrarese (Johns Hopkins University), H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University), J. Graham (Department of Terrestrial Magnetism), M. Han (University of Wisconsin), P. Harding (University of Arizona), J. Hoessel (University of Wisconsin), J. Huchra (Smithsonian/Harvard University), S. Hughes (Royal Greenwich Observatory, Cambridge), G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), B.F. Madore (IPAC/Caltech), R. Phelps (Carnegie Observatories), A. Saha (Space Telescope Science Institute), N. Silbermann (IPAC), P. Stetson (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory), and S. Sakai (IPAC).

Members of the Sandage team include A. Sandage (Carnegie Observatories), A. Saha (Space Telescope Science Institute), G.A. Tammann, and L. Labhardt (Astronomical Institute, University of Basel), F.D. Macchetto and N. Panagia (Space Telescope Science Institute/European Space Agency).