Before the discovery of Cepheid variable stars, there was no way to accurately measure the distance to objects outside of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Learn more about these “cosmic measuring tapes” and how they’re used to define the scale to neighboring galaxies.
Cepheids pulse in size (and brightness) in a very regular pattern, which takes longer to complete the bigger they are. By watching how long it takes to go from bright to dim to bright again you can determine how bright a Cepheid star really is. By comparing that to how bright a Cepheid star looks in the sky you can figure out how far away it actually is, in the same way you can figure out how far away a streetlight is on the highway…the farther it is the dimmer it looks. Astronomers used Cepheid variable stars to determine distances to galaxies for the first time, when no one really understood just how far away they were. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope still performs distance measurements using Cepheid stars today, in order to more precisely measure the rate at which our universe is expanding.
The Video to the right is of barred spiral galaxy NAMEHERE which shows a pulsating Cepheid variable star near the left-hand edge. Credit:NASA/etc.