Delta Cephei’s Hidden Companion


Bow shock around star Delta Cephei. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M

Bow shock around star Delta Cephei. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M

To measure distances in the universe, astronomers use cepheids, a family of variable stars whose luminosity varies with time. Their role as distance calibrators has brought them attention from researchers for more than a century. While it was thought that nearly everything was known about the prototype of cepheids, named Delta Cephei, a team of researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), the Johns Hopkins University, and the European Space Agency (ESA), have now discovered that this star has a hidden companion. They have published an article about the discovery in The Astrophysical Journal.

Delta Cephei, prototype of the cepheids, which has given its name to all similar variable stars, was discovered 230 years ago by the English astronomer John Goodricke. Since the early 20th century, scientists have been interested in measuring cosmic distances using a relationship between these stars’ periods of pulsation and their luminosities (intrinsic brightness), discovered by the American Henrietta Leavitt. Today, researchers from the Astronomical Observatory of UNIGE, Johns Hopkins University and the ESA show that Delta Cephei is, in fact, a double star, made up of a cepheid-type variable star and a companion that had thus far escaped detection, probably because of its low luminosity. Yet, pairs of stars, called binaries, complicate the calibration of the period-luminosity relationship, and can bias the measurement of distances. This is a surprising discovery, since Delta Cephei is one of the most studied stars, of which scientists thought they knew almost everything.

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