Though the physics behind Cepheid variability is well-understood, we still have significant difficulties to overcome in order to improve the zero-point of Leavitt’s law. Cepheids are supergiants. They are stars several times the mass of our Sun that have evolved off of the main sequence of the stellar color-magnitude diagram (in other words they’re in the stellar ‘afterlife’). Because bigger stars burn their fuel faster than smaller stars, Cepheids are also young stars. Thus they are often found in the dusty regions of galaxies so we have to deal with absorption, reddening, and dust scattering when we observe them. The period-luminosity relationship may also have a dependence on metallicity (the fraction of atoms in the star that are heavier than helium) that we still don’t fully understand.
Another common problem that we face when using Cepheids—and the focus of today’s paper!—is the presence of a binary companion. In fact, more than 50% of Galactic Cepheids are expected to have at least one companion. The number of Cepheids with binary companions is so high that we can’t deal with them by simply throwing out the ones that have companions. Separating the luminosity of the Cepheid from its companion is important if we want to use the period luminosity relationship.
A University of Arizona-led team of astronomers found that the type of supernovae commonly used to measure distances in the universe fall into distinct populations not recognized before. The findings have implications for our understanding of how fast the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang.
"To be clear, this research does not suggest that there is no acceleration," Milne said, "just that there might be less of it."
"We're proposing that our data suggest there might be less dark energy than textbook knowledge, but we can't put a number on it," he added. "Until our paper, the two populations of supernovae were treated as the same population. To get that final answer, you need to do all that work again, separately for the red and for the blue population."
Type Ia supernovae (SNe) are often the archetype of an astronomical standardizable candle — something that has a known luminosity which we can use to measure its distance. Scientists famously used type Ia SNe to discover that our universe is accelerating and won the Nobel prize in 2011. However, one of astronomy’s dirtiest secrets is that we don’t know exactly how type Ia SNe materialize or why they might even be standard candles.
Supernovae are the explosive deaths of stars. They have a range of spectral types and energies that depend on the nature of the explosion and the progenitor stars. Type Ia SNe detonate in one of two ways: via the single degenerate or double degenerate model. In the single degenerate model, a white dwarf orbits a massive main-sequence star and eats aways at its partner’s outer layers. The white dwarf gains mass and eventually tips over the Chandrasekhar limit and collapses on itself and explodes. In the double-degenerate model, a binary system of two white dwarfs loses energy due to gravitational waves and the white dwarfs eventually collide.
Until recently, astronomers thought the most likely way for a white dwarf to gain mass would be as a member of a close binary system with a normal sun-like star. By accumulating matter from its companion, the white dwarf can, over millions of years, nudge itself closer to the limit and explode. The companion stars are expected to survive, but astronomers find scant evidence for them, suggesting the need for an alternative model. In the merger scenario, the blast is triggered by a pair of lower-mass white dwarfs, whose orbits tighten over time until they eventually merge and explode.
"We can distinguish which of these scenarios is responsible for a given supernova remnant by tallying the nickel and manganese in the expanding cloud," said Goddard astrophysicist Brian Williams. "An explosion from a single white dwarf near its mass limit will produce significantly different amounts of these elements than a merger."