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Most Accurate Distance to NGC 300.

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Observed Fields in NGC 300.
Observed Fields in NGC 300. Image credit: ESO.

Cepheid variables are one of the most accurate tools Astronomers can use to measure the distance to objects in space because the period of their pulsation is directly tied to their brightness. An international team of Astronomers have used this method to calculate the distance to Galaxy NGC 300 which is in the Sculptor Group. The team found more than 100 Cepheid variables, and then used them to calculate the distance to be 6.13 million light-years away; give or take 3%.

Cepheid pulsating stars have been used as distance indicators since the early discovery of Henrietta Leavitt almost a hundred years ago. From her photographic data regarding one of the Milky Way's neighbour galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud, she found that the brightness of these stars closely correlate with their pulsation periods.

This period-luminosity relation, once calibrated, allows a precise distance determination of a Galaxy once Cepheids have been discovered in it, and their periods and mean magnitudes have been measured.

While the Cepheid method doesn't reach out far enough in the universe to directly determine cosmological parameters like the Hubble constant, Cepheid distances to relatively nearby resolved Galaxies have laid the foundation for such work in the past, as in the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale. Cepheids indeed constitute one of the first steps in the cosmic distance ladder.

The current main problem with the Cepheid method is that its dependence on a galaxy's metallicity, that is, its content in elements more heavy than Hydrogen and helium, has never been measured accurately so far. Another intriguing difficulty with the method is the fact that the total absorption of the Cepheid's light on its way to Earth, and in particular the amount of absorption within the Cepheid's host galaxy, must be precisely established to avoid significant errors in the distance determination.

To tackle this problem, Wolfgang Gieren (University of Concepcion, Chile) and his team devised a Large Programme at ESO: the Araucaria Project. Its aim is to obtain distances to relatively nearby Galaxies with a precision better than 5 percent.

One of the key Galaxies of the team's Araucaria Project is the beautiful, near face-on Galaxy NGC 300 in the Sculptor Group. In a wide-field imaging survey carried out at the ESO/MPG 2.2-m telescope on La Silla in 1999-2000, the team had discovered more than a hundred Cepheid variables spanning a broad range in pulsation period. Pictures of the galaxy, and some of its Cepheids from these data were released in ESO Press Photos 18a-h in 2002. Last year, the team presented the distance of NGC 300 as derived from these optical images in V- and I-bands.

The team complemented this unique dataset with new data taken with the ISAAC near-infrared camera and spectrometer on ESO's 8.2-m VLT Antu telescope.

"There are three substantial advantages in the Cepheid distance work when images obtained through near-infrared passbands are used instead of optical data", says Wolfgang Gieren. The most important gain is the fact that the absorption of starlight in the near-infrared, and particularly in the K-band, is dramatically reduced as compared to the effect interstellar matter has at visible wavelengths. A second advantage is that Cepheid light curves in the Infrared have smaller amplitudes and are much more symmetrical than their optical counterparts, making it possible to measure a Cepheid's mean K-band brightness just from a very few, and in principle from just one observation at known pulsation phase. In contrast, optical work requires the observation of full light curves to determine accurate mean magnitudes. The third basic advantage in the Infrared is a reduced sensitivity of the period-luminosity relation to metallicity, and to blending with other stars in the crowded fields of a distant galaxy.

Taking this into account, one of the main purposes of the team's Large Programme has been to conduct near-infrared follow-up observations of Cepheids in their project's target Galaxies which have previously been discovered in optical wide-field surveys.

Deep images in the J and K bands of three fields in NGC 300 containing 16 Cepheids were taken with VLT/ISAAC in 2003.

"The high quality of the data allowed a very accurate measurement of the mean J- and K- magnitudes of the Cepheids from just 2 observations of each star obtained at different times", says Grzegorz Pietrzynski, another member of the team, also from Concepcion.

Using these remarkable data the period-luminosity relations were constructed. "They are the most accurate Infrared PL relations ever obtained for a Cepheid sample in a Galaxy beyond the Magellanic Clouds", emphasizes Wolfgang Gieren.

The total absorption of light ("reddening") of the Cepheids in NGC 300 was obtained by combining the values for the distance of the Galaxy obtained in the various optical and near-infrared bands in which NGC 300 was observed. This led to the discovery that there is a very significant contribution to the total reddening from absorption intrinsic to NGC 300. This intrinsic absorption has an important effect on the determination of the distance but had not been taken into account previously.

The team was able to measure the distance to NGC 300 with the unprecedented total uncertainty of only about 3 percent. The Astronomers found that NGC 300 is located 6.13 million light-years away.

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