VLBA Sets New Standard for Accurate Cosmic Distance Measurement

VLBA station

A team of radio astronomers has used the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) to make the most accurate measurement ever made of the distance to a faraway galaxy. Their direct measurement calls into question the precision of distance determinations made by other techniques, including those announced last week by a team using the Hubble Space Telescope.

The radio astronomers measured a distance of 23.5 million light-years to a galaxy called NGC 4258 in Ursa Major. “Ours is a direct measurement, using geometry, and is independent of all other methods of determining cosmic distances,” said Jim Herrnstein, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM. The team says their measurement is accurate to within less than a million light-years, or four percent. The galaxy is also known as Messier 106 and is visible with amateur telescopes.

Herrnstein, along with James Moran and Lincoln Greenhill of the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Phillip Diamond, of the Merlin radio telescope facility at Jodrell Bank and the University of Manchester in England; Makato Inoue and Naomasa Nakai of Japan’s Nobeyama Radio Observatory; Mikato Miyoshi of Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory; Christian Henkel of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy; and Adam Riess of the University of California at Berkeley, announced their findings at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Chicago.

“This is an incredible achievement to measure the distance to another galaxy with this precision,” said Miller Goss, NRAO’s Director of VLA/VLBA Operations. “This is the first time such a great distance has been measured this accurately. It took painstaking work on the part of the observing team, and it took a radio telescope the size of the Earth — the VLBA — to make it possible,” Goss said.

“Astronomers have sought to determine the Hubble Constant, the rate of expansion of the universe, for decades. This will in turn lead to an estimate of the age of the universe. In order to do this, you need an unambiguous, absolute distance to another galaxy. We are pleased that the NSF’s VLBA has for the first time determined such a distance, and thus provided the calibration standard astronomers have always sought in their quest for accurate distances beyond the Milky Way,” said Morris Aizenman, Executive Officer of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences.

“For astronomers, this measurement is the golden meter stick in the glass case,” Aizenman added.

The international team of astronomers used the VLBA to measure directly the motion of gas orbiting what is generally agreed to be a supermassive black hole at the heart of NGC 4258. The orbiting gas forms a warped disk, nearly two light-years in diameter, surrounding the black hole. The gas in the disk includes water vapor, which, in parts of the disk, acts as a natural amplifier of microwave radio emission. The regions that amplify radio emission are called masers, and work in a manner similar to the way a laser amplifies light emission.

Determining the distance to NGC 4258 required measuring motions of extremely small shifts in position of these masers as they rotate around the black hole. This is equivalent to measuring an angle one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair held at arm’s length. “The VLBA is the only instrument in the world that could do this,” said Moran.

“This work is the culmination of a 20-year effort at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to measure distances to cosmic masers,” said Irwin Shapiro, Director of that institution.

Collection of the data for the NGC 4258 project was begun in 1994 and was part of Herrnstein’s Ph.D dissertation at Harvard University.

Previous observations with the VLBA allowed the scientists to measure the speed at which the gas is orbiting the black hole, some 39 million times more massive than the Sun. They did this by observing the amount of change in the wavelength of the radio waves caused by the Doppler effect. The gas is orbiting at a speed of more than two million miles per hour.

The orbiting disk of gas is almost edge-on as viewed from Earth. The astronomers obtained the orbital speeds and the positions of the masers in the disk by measuring the Doppler Shift of the masers at the disk’s sides, where the gas is moving almost directly away from the Earth on one side and toward the Earth on the other. Measurements of the different orbital speeds at different distances from the black hole, made in 1994, allowed them to determine the mass of the black hole. These measurements required the great resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, of the VLBA.

This picture of an orbiting disk was confirmed by measurement of centrifugal acceleration, according to the scientists.

The newest observations were focused on maser “spots” on the near edge of the disk, where orbital motion shifts their position in the sky, though by an extremely small amount. The VLBA, however, was able to detect this extremely small movement, called “proper motion” by astronomers. This motion was detected by observing the galaxy at 4- to 8-month intervals over more than three years.

“By knowing the speed at which the gas is orbiting and then measuring its motion across the sky, we can use plain old trigonometry to calculate the distance,” Greenhill said. He added, however, that “you need a bit of luck to be able to do this. So far, we know of only 22 galaxies with water masers in their nuclear regions that also are relatively nearby. Then, the geometry of the disk, relative to Earth, has to be right to allow us to make such a measurement”

The VLBA measurement of NGC 4258’s distance differs significantly from the distance to that galaxy determined through HST observations of Cepheid variable stars. Using such stars, a team of astronomers led by University of California-Berkeley scientist Eyal Maoz has made preliminary and as-yet unpublished estimates of the distance to NGC 4258 as either 27 or 29 million light-years, depending on assumptions about the characteristics of this type of star in that galaxy. Other Cepheid-based galaxy distances were used to calculate the expansion rate of the universe, called the Hubble Constant, announced by a team of HST observers last week.

“This difference could mean that there may be more uncertainty in Cepheid-determined distances than people have realized,” said Moran. “Providing this directly-determined distance to one galaxy — a distance that can serve as a milestone — should be helpful in determining distances to other galaxies, and thus the Hubble Constant and the size and age of the universe”

The VLBA is a system of ten radio-telescope antennas, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, stretching some 5,000 miles from Mauna Kea in Hawaii to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Operated from NRAO’s Array Operations Center in Socorro, NM, the VLBA offers astronomers the greatest resolving power of any telescope anywhere. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Dave Finley, Public Information Officer
(505) 835-7302

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