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.

April 6, 1996

Andromeda Nebula: Var!
Credit: Mount Wilson Observatory Historical Archive

Explanation: In the 1920s, using photographic plates made with the Mt. Wilson Observatory's 100 inch telescope, Edwin Hubble determined the distance to the Andromeda Nebula - decisively demonstrating the existence of other galaxies far beyond the Milky Way. His notations are evident on the plate shown above (the image is a negative with stars appearing as black dots against the white background of space). By intercomparing plates, Hubble searched for "novae", stars which underwent a sudden increase in brightness. He found several on this plate and marked them with an "N". Later he discovered that one was actually a type of variable star known as a cepheid - crossing out the "N" he wrote "Var!" (upper right). Thanks to the work of Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, cepheids, regularly varying, pulsating stars, could be used as "standard candle" distance indicators. Identifying such a star allowed Hubble to show that Andromeda was not a small cluster of stars and gas within our own galaxy, but a large galaxy in its own right at a substantial distance from the Milky Way. Hubble's discovery is responsible for our modern concept of a Universe filled with galaxies.

Information: The Scale of the Universe Debate in April 1996
Tomorrow's picture: Uranus's Moon Umbriel: A Mysterious Dark World

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (GMU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA).
NASA Technical Rep.: Sherri Calvo. Specific rights apply.
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