Distant Supernovae Evince Accelerating Expansion of our Universe

In 1998, it was discovered by two independent research teams through the study of distant Type Ia supernovae that our expanding universe has an expansion rate that is accelerating.  This was a completely unexpected result.

A Type Ia supernova occurs in a close binary star system where mass from one star accretes onto a white dwarf until it reaches a critical mass and a supernova explosion ensues.  Many of these events, chosen carefully, can be used as “standard candles” for distance determination.  The intrinsic peak luminosity of a typical Type Ia supernova is a function of the light curve decay time.  Type Ia supernovae whose luminosity curves rise and fall more rapidly are less intrinsically luminous at maximum brightness.  Type Ia supernovae whose luminosity curves rise and fall more slowly are more intrinsically luminous at maximum brightness.

If we know the intrinsic luminosity of an object (the absolute magnitude) and can measure the apparent luminosity of that object (the apparent magnitude), we can calculate its distance.  Type Ia supernovae are on the order of a million times brighter than Cepheid variables, and are in fact the brightest of all “normal” supernovae.  They can thus be used to measure the distance to extremely distant objects.

The evidence for an accelerating universe is that these distant supernovae appear fainter than they should be at their measured cosmological redshift, indicating that they are farther away than expected.  A number of possible explanations for the faint supernova phenomenon had to be eliminated before the conclusion that the universe’s expansion is accelerating could be arrived at, including

(1) Do distant supernovae (and therefore supernovae that occurred many billions of years ago) have the same intrinsic brightness as comparable nearby supernovae that occurred in the recent past?

(2) Are the distant supernovae being dimmed by galactic and intergalactic extinction due to dust and gas along our line of sight to the supernova?

As described above, the shape of the supernova light curve indicates the supernova’s intrinsic brightness, analogous in a way to the period of a Cepheid indicating its intrinsic brightness.  Though there is evidence that ancient supernovae may have been a little different than those today because of lower metallicity, the effect is small and doesn’t change the overall conclusion of an accelerating universe.  However, properly characterizing the influence of metallicity will result in less uncertainly in distance and therefore less uncertainty in the acceleration rate of the universe.

Extinction is worse at bluer wavelengths, but how the apparent magnitude changes as a function of distance is independent of wavelength, so the two effects can be disentangled.  2011 Nobel physics laureate Adam Riess in his award-winning 1996 Ph.D. thesis developed a “Multicolor Light Curve Shape Method” to analyze the light curves of a large ensemble of type Ia supernovae, both near and far, allowing him to determine their distances more accurately by removing the effects of extinction.

The Nearest Stars

Within 5 light years (ly) of the Earth, there are 4 stars known (just the Sun and the Alpha Centauri system).  Within 10 ly, there are 14.  Within 15 ly, there are 60 stars.  The number goes up—rapidly!  Undoubtedly, more stars will be discovered within 15 light years of the Sun.

And, cool is the rule when it comes to nearby stars.  Of the 60 known stars within 15 ly of Earth, an amazing 40 (two-thirds) are class M stars.  The remaining one-third include one A star, one F star, three G stars, six K stars, one L infrared dwarf, five very cool T infrared dwarfs, and three white dwarfs.

The hottest (and bluest) star within 15 light years of the Sun is none other than Sirius (α Canis Majoris)—the brightest star in the night sky—just 8.58 light years distant.  Sirius A is an A1V (main-sequence) star, twice as massive as our Sun, 71% wider, 25 times more luminous, and only 225 to 250 million years old—just a single orbit around the galactic center.  Sirius rotates much faster than the Sun, too, spinning around once on its axis every 5.4 days.  Think about all these things the next time you look up and see Sirius chasing Orion across the meridian these late-winter eves.  And that Sirius has a white dwarf companion that orbits it once every 50 years, too.

All but two of the nearest 57 stars that are not white dwarfs have a luminosity class of V, meaning they are dwarf or main-sequence stars.  The first exception is Procyon (α CMi A).  Its luminosity class of IV-V indicates it is bright for its temperature and spectral type (F5) and beginning to evolve into a subgiant star on its way towards becoming a giant star.  The other exception is Kapteyn’s Star, a red subdwarf star of spectral type and luminosity class M2VI.  A subdwarf star is underluminous for its temperature and spectral type.  This is caused by low metallicity.  The scarcity of elements other than hydrogen and helium in the star results in a more transparent stellar photosphere and thus a star that is a little smaller than it normally would be.  Incidentally, the fact that we have three white dwarf stars within just 15 light years of us suggests that white dwarfs are copious throughout our galaxy.

You might be wondering how many planets have been discovered orbiting these 60 nearest stars.  Beyond the eight planets orbiting our Sun we find another eleven confirmed planets, plus several more unconfirmed planets.  This is a rapidly advancing field and no doubt many more planets will be added to the list in the coming decade.

The masses of the confirmed planets include one a little over three times the mass of Jupiter, one a little more massive than Neptune, one a little less massive than Uranus, six super-Earths, and two just a third more massive than Earth.  Their orbital periods range from 4.7 up to 121.5 terrestrial days, and then one planet (the super-Jupiter) orbiting once every 6.9 years.  Orbital eccentricities range from circular (0.00) to 0.32, with the super-Jupiter in a very elliptical orbit having an eccentricity of 0.702.  The super-Jupiter is orbiting Epsilon Eridani (K2V, 10.48 ly), with all the rest of the confirmed exoplanets orbiting M-dwarf stars.

“The Nearest Stars” by Todd J. Henry, Observer’s Handbook 2017, RASC, pp. 286-290.

Stars Like Our Sun – II

Last time we looked at the brightest G2V stars in the nighttime sky.

Now, we’ll focus on a more sophisticated approach to identify stars that are most like our Sun.  A solar twin is currently defined as a star with the following characteristics (Adibekyan et al. 2017):

Teff = 5777 ± 100 K

log g = 4.44 ± 0.10 dex

[Fe/H] = 0.00 ± 0.10 dex

Teff is the effective temperature of the star.  The effective temperature is the uniform temperature of a black body (which stars closely approximate) that would have the same radiant energy at all wavelengths as the star.

log g is the surface gravity, the base-10 logarithm of the gravitational acceleration, at the photosphere of the star.  The surface gravity is presented logarithmically because the gravitational acceleration at the surface of a star ranges over many orders of magnitude depending on the type of star (for example, a red dwarf vs. a white dwarf or neutron star).

[Fe/H] is the metallicity of the star, giving the ratio of iron to hydrogen atoms in logarithmic units relative to the Sun.  So measured, metallicity as the iron content of a star’s photosphere is often a reasonable proxy for the total metal content of the star (all elements except for hydrogen and helium).

Looking at a recent list of 21 solar twins in the solar neighborhood (Nissen  2016), we find that HD 20782 has the closest Teff match to the Sun, HR 2318 has the closest log g match to the Sun, and HD 222582 has the closest [Fe/H] match to the Sun.  The star with the closest match to all three solar twin characteristics is 18 Scorpii.

HD 20782
Teff = 5776K, log g = 4.345, [Fe/H] = -0.058
Age = 8.1 ± 0.4 Gyr, Mass = 0.97 M
mv = 7.38, mb = 8.03, B-V = 0.65, G1.5V
α2000 = 03h 20m 04s, δ2000 = -28° 51′ 15″
116 – 118 ly
Single star with one known planet, 1.4 – 2.4 MJ, 592d orbital period, in a highly eccentric orbit (e = 0.97).

HR 2318
Canis Major
Teff = 5871 K, log g = 4.445, [Fe/H] = 0.047
Age = 2.7 ± 0.5 Gyr, Mass = 1.05 M
mv = 6.39, mb = 7.01, B-V = 0.62, G1.5V
α2000 = 06h 24m 44s, δ2000 = -28° 46′ 48″
71 – 72 ly
Single star with one known planet, 87% the mass of Uranus, 5.89d orbital period, in a mildly eccentric orbit (e = 0.3).

HD 222582
Aquarius (below the Circlet of Pisces)
Teff = 5784 K, log g = 4.361, [Fe/H] = -0.004
Age = 7.0 ± 0.4 Gyr, Mass = 1.00 M
mv = 7.69, mb = 8.34, B-V = 0.65, G5V
α2000 = 23h 41m 52s, δ2000 = -05° 59′ 09″
136 – 140 ly
Single star with one known planet, 7.1 – 8.4 MJ, 572d orbital period, in a very eccentric orbit (e = 0.725).

18 Scorpii (18 Sco)
Scorpius (just below the “coffee pot” asterism of Ophiuchus)
Teff = 5809 K, log g = 4.434, [Fe/H] = 0.046
Age = 4.0 ± 0.5 Gyr, Mass = 1.03 M
mv = 5.50, mb = 6.15, B-V = 0.65, G5V
α2000 = 16h 15m 37s, δ2000 = -08° 22′ 10″
45.1 – 45.6 ly
Single star, very similar to our Sun.

An additional solar twin in the solar neighborhood has been added recently (Yana Galarza 2016): HD 195034.  It has an even closer match to the Sun’s [Fe/H] than HD 222582 does.

HD 195034
Teff = 5818 K, log g = 4.49, [Fe/H] = -0.003
Age = 2.0 ± 0.4 Gyr, Mass = 1.03 M
mv = 7.09, mb = 7.74, B-V = 0.65, G5
α2000 = 20h 28m 12s, δ2000 = +22° 07′ 44″
91 – 92 ly
Single star.

Adibekyan, V., Delgado-Mena, E., Feltzing, S., et al. 2017, arXiv:1701.05737
Nissen, P.E. 2016, A&A, 593, A65
Yana Galarza, J., Meléndez, J., Ramírez, I., et al. 2016, A&A, 589, A17


No, it’s not the name of a rock band. Astronomers (unlike everybody else) consider all elements besides hydrogen and helium to be metals. For example, our Sun has a metallicity of at least 2% by mass (Vagnozzi 2016). That means as much as 98% of the mass of the Sun is hydrogen (~73%) and helium (~25%), with 2% being everything else.

Traditionally, elemental abundances in the Sun have been measured using spectroscopy of the Sun’s photosphere.  In principle, stronger spectral lines (usually absorption) of an element indicate a greater abundance of that element, but deriving the correct proportions from the cacophony of spectral lines is challenging.

A more direct approach to measuring the Sun’s elemental abundances is analyzing the composition of the solar wind, though the material blown away from the surface of the Sun that we measure near Earth’s orbit may be somewhat different from the actual photospheric composition.  The solar wind appears to best reflect the composition of the Sun’s photosphere in the solar polar regions near solar minimum.  The Ulysses spacecraft made solar wind measurements above both the Sun’s north and south polar regions during the 1994-1995 solar minimum.  Analysis of these Ulysses data indicate the most abundant elements are (after hydrogen and helium, in order of abundance): oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, magnesium, silicon, neon, iron, and sulfur—though one analysis of the data shows that neon is the third most abundant element (after carbon).

The elephant in the room is, of course, are the photospheric abundances we measure using spectroscopy or the collection of solar wind particles indicative of the Sun’s composition as a whole?  As it turns out, we do have ways to probe the interior of the Sun.  Both helioseismology and the flux of neutrinos emanating from the Sun are sensitive to metal abundances within the Sun.  Helioseismology is the study of the propagation of acoustic pressure waves (p-waves) within the Sun.  Neutrino flux is devilishly hard to measure since neutrinos so seldom interact with the matter in our instruments.  Our studies of the interior of the Sun (except for sophisticated computer models) are still in their infancy.

You might imagine that if measuring the metallicity of the Sun in our own front yard is this difficult, then measuring it for other stars presents an even more formidable challenge.

In practice, metallicity is usually expressed as the abundance of iron relative to hydrogen.  Even though iron is only the seventh most abundant metal (in the Sun, at least), it has 26 electrons, leading to the formation of many spectral lines corresponding to the various ionization states within a wide range of temperature and pressure regimes.  Of the metals having a higher abundance than iron, silicon has the largest number of electrons, only 14, and it does not form nearly as many spectral lines in the visible part of the spectrum as does iron.  Thus defined, the metallicity of the Sun [Fe/H] = 0.00 by definition.  It is a logarithmic scale: [Fe/H] = -1.0 indicates an abundance of iron relative to hydrogen just 1/10 that of the Sun.  [Fe/H] = +1.0 indicates an abundance of iron relative to hydrogen 10 times that of the Sun.

The relationship between stellar metallicity and the existence and nature of exoplanets is an active topic of research.  It is complicated by the fact that we can never say for certain that a star does not have planets, since our observational techniques are strongly biased towards detecting planets with an orbital plane near our line of sight to the star.

Vagnozzi, S. 2016, 51st Recontres de Moriond, Cosmology, At La Thuile