Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 February 12
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Echoes from RS Pup
Credit: Pierre Kervella (Obs. de Paris), Antoine Mérand (CHARA), et al., ESO

Explanation: This dusty reflection nebula surrounds pulsating star RS Pup, some 10 times more massive than the Sun and on average 15,000 times more luminous. In fact, RS Pup is a Cepheid type variable star; a class of stars whose brightness is used to estimate distances to nearby galaxies as one of the first steps in establishing the cosmic distance scale. As RS Pup pulsates over a period of about 40 days, its regular changes in brightness are also seen along the nebula delayed in time, effectively a light echo. The otherwise overwhelming light from RS Pup itself is hidden behind the dark central stripe in the colour image. Using new measurements of the time delay and angular size of the nebula, the known speed of light allows astronomers to geometrically determine the distance to RS Pup to be 6,500 light-years, with a remarkably small error of plus or minus 90 light-years. An impressive achievement for stellar astronomy, the echo-measured distance also more accurately establishes the true brightness of RS Pup, and by extension other Cepheid stars, improving the knowledge of distances to galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Tomorrow's picture: smooth galaxy

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