Hubble Finds Variable Stars in Distant Spiral Galaxy
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Hubble Finds Variable Stars in Distant Spiral Galaxy

February 8, 2005
A NASA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) view of the magnificent spiral galaxy NGC 4603, the most distant galaxy in which a special class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables have been found. It is associated with the Centaurus cluster, one of the most massive assemblages of galaxies in the nearby universe. The Local Group of galaxies, of which the Milky Way is a member, is moving in the direction of Centaurus at a speed of more than a million miles an hour under the influence of the gravitational pull of the matter in that direction.

Clusters of young bright blue stars highlight the galaxy's spiral arms. In contrast, red giant stars in the process of dying are also found. Only the very brightest stars in NGC 4603 can be seen individually, even with the unmatched ability of the Hubble Space Telescope to obtain detailed images of distant objects. Much of the diffuse glow comes from fainter stars that cannot be individually distinguished by Hubble. The reddish filaments are regions where clouds of dust obscure blue light from the stars behind them.

This galaxy was observed by a team affiliated with the HST Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale. Because NGC 4603 is much farther away than the other galaxies studied with Hubble by the Key Project team, 108 million light-years, its stars appear very faint from the Earth, and so accurately measuring their brightness, as is required for distinguishing the characteristic variations of Cepheids, is extremely difficult. At this distance some non-variable stars may by chance appear to grow brighter and fainter in the same fashion as Cepheids due to the physical impossibility of perfect measurements of such dim objects. Determining the distance to the galaxy required an unprecedented statistical analysis based on extensive computer simulations.

Researchers found 36-50 Cepheids and used their observed properties to securely determine the distance to NGC 4603. These measurements indicate that when the expansion of the universe and the motion of the Local Group are accounted for, the Centaurus cluster is very nearly at rest compared with the surrounding regions. It is part of the cause of the rapid motions in the nearby universe, rather than being strongly pulled by other concentrations of matter. Observations of distant Cepheids such as those in NGC 4603 also help astronomers to precisely measure the expansion rate of the universe.

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