Hubble Reaches New Milestone in Mystery of Universe's Expansion Rate

"You are getting the most precise measure of the expansion rate for the universe from the gold standard of telescopes and cosmic mile markers," said Nobel Laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Riess leads a scientific collaboration investigating the universe's expansion rate called SH0ES, which stands for Supernova, H0, for the Equation of State of Dark Energy.

"This is what the Hubble Space Telescope was built to do, using the best techniques we know to do it. This is likely Hubble's magnum opus, because it would take another 30 years of Hubble's life to even double this sample size," Riess said.

Riess's team's paper, to be published in the Special Focus issue of The Astrophysical Journal reports on completing the biggest and likely last major update on the Hubble constant. 

The new results more than double the prior sample of cosmic distance markers. His team also reanalyzed all of the prior data, with the whole dataset now including over 1,000 Hubble orbits.

When NASA conceived of a large space telescope in the 1970s, one of the primary justifications for the expense and extraordinary technical effort was to be able to resolve Cepheids, stars that brighten and dim periodically, seen inside our Milky Way and external galaxies. 

Cepheids have long been the gold standard of cosmic mile markers since their utility was discovered by astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912. To calculate much greater distances, astronomers use exploding stars called Type Ia supernovae.

Combined, these objects built a "cosmic distance ladder" across the universe and are essential to measuring the expansion rate of the universe, called the Hubble constant after Edwin Hubble.

That value is critical to estimating the age of the universe and provides a basic test of our understanding of the universe.

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