In our previous stop on our tour of celestial objects of cosmological importance, we looked at a handful of galaxies measured by the early 20th-century astronomer Vesto Slipher. The former Indiana farm boy wrestled with a modestly endowed telescope and a 450-pound spectrometer to make an astonishing discovery. He found the ‘spiral nebulae’ like Andromeda (M31) and the Sombrero (M104) were moving away from us at astonishing speeds, up to 1000 km/s and far faster than any nearby stars. The speeds of these spiral assemblies strongly suggested they lay outside our own group of stars, and were perhaps separate galaxies in their own right far outside our own.
But in science, a strong suggestion is not proof.
In the first years of the 20th century, astronomers had no way of knowing for sure the distance to these spiral assemblies. Indeed, a hundred years ago, they only could estimate the distances to a handful of nearby stars. The true scale of even our own galaxy was a complete mystery. No one knew whether the Milky Way was all there was to the universe, and whether it was a hundred light years across, or a thousand, or a trillion. Never mind the distances to the mysterious ‘spiral nebulae’, which may simply have been nearby star systems in the process of formation.
The key to the distance to the spiral nebulae, which we now know to be separate galaxies, and to the universe itself, lay unexpectedly in a class of unassuming stars, many of which you can see from your backyard with a pair of binoculars or without any optics at all…