Books have been written about the titanic struggle of measuring and calibrating distances in the Universe, so I am not going to cover that here again. But let's talk about my (and my collaborators) effort in the field.
I've written before about some work I've been doing with PhD student, Anthony Conn, using the tip of the Red Giant Branch to measure the distances to the dwarf galaxies orbiting our nearest neighbours, the Andromeda (M31) and Triangulum (M33) galaxies.
It's easy to understand the method, basically it says that things are fainter when they are further away. If you know how bright things truly are, you can calculate their distance using the inverse square law.
The problem is know how bright something is really is. This is where the tip comes in.
Here's some colour-magnitude diagrams for a globular cluster. The stars are not all over the place, but lie in particular places.
Stars are simple objects. Basically gravity squeezing inwards is balanced by energy (in terms of pressure) pushing outwards. So, when the energy flow form the core is used up, the star starts to collapse in on itself. The squeezing rises, the temperature sizes, until a shell of hydrogen starts to burn into helium just outside the core.
However, this burning changes the properties of the star, with the flow of energy into the outer parts of the star, causing it to swell up. As it swells, the atmosphere cools and becomes red, but because the star is getting larger, it actually emits more radiation into space. The star has become a Red Giant (this is the future for the Sun!).
The swelling stars are the line of stars up the right hand side of the picture. The star continues to swell, and get brighter and brighter. Due to continual squeezing though, the core gets hotter and hotter, until it BOOOM, the core ignites again, burning helium into heavier elements. This is called the helium flash.
The outer layers of the become less luminous and the star drops back down the giant branch. The cool thing is that the point that this happens is the same for all stars (there is an effect of the chemical composition of the star, but that's a smallish effect). So, the tip of the red giant branch, the point in the colour-magnitude diagram where the stars stop getting brighter and fall back down, is a standard candle, something we can use to measure distances. And this is what Anthony did.
Now, that might make it sound easy, but the data we are working with is not as clean as the picture up there, there are a mess of contamination from stars in our galaxy, to faint galaxies at the limit of detection. Here's an example of what we are working with;
The bottom right box is the luminosity function, with the bright being on the left, and faint on the right (I know, I know, astronomers are stupid for using the barse-ackward magnitude system). Above the tip, no stars, then we have a sharp jump at the tip and then more and more stars below.
The bottom left is our measurement of the location of the tip in this case. Notice that we don't have a single number, we have a probability distribution function; the peak of this distribution might be the bestest value for the location of the top, but the width of the distribution is also very important, show how accurately we have made the measurement. I will stress again, you don't get the Nobel prize for measuring a number, you get it for measuring a number and its uncertainty.
To cut to the chase, we now know the three dimensional distribution of dwarf galaxies about Andromeda. What does it look like, here's the picture from the paper;
A Bayesian Approach to Locating the Red Giant Branch Tip Magnitude (Part II); Distances to the Satellites of M31
Anthony R. Conn, Rodrigo A. Ibata, Geraint F. Lewis, Quentin A. Parker, Daniel B. Zucker, Nicolas F. Martin, Alan W. McConnachie, Mike J. Irwin, Nial Tanvir, Mark A. Fardal, Annette M. N. Ferguson, Scott C. Chapman, David Valls-Gabaud
(Submitted on 22 Sep 2012)
In `A Bayesian Approach to Locating the Red Giant Branch Tip Magnitude (PART I),' a new technique was introduced for obtaining distances using the TRGB standard candle. Here we describe a useful complement to the technique with the potential to further reduce the uncertainty in our distance measurements by incorporating a matched-filter weighting scheme into the model likelihood calculations. In this scheme, stars are weighted according to their probability of being true object members. We then re-test our modified algorithm using random-realization artificial data to verify the validity of the generated posterior probability distributions (PPDs) and proceed to apply the algorithm to the satellite system of M31, culminating in a 3D view of the system. Further to the distributions thus obtained, we apply a satellite-specific prior on the satellite distances to weight the resulting distance posterior distributions, based on the halo density profile. Thus in a single publication, using a single method, a comprehensive coverage of the distances to the companion galaxies of M31 is presented, encompassing the dwarf spheroidals Andromedas I - III, V, IX-XXVII and XXX along with NGC147, NGC 185, M33 and M31 itself. Of these, the distances to Andromeda XXIV - XXVII and Andromeda XXX have never before been derived using the TRGB. Object distances are determined from high-resolution tip magnitude posterior distributions generated using the Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) technique and associated sampling of these distributions to take into account uncertainties in foreground extinction and the absolute magnitude of the TRGB as well as photometric errors. The distance PPDs obtained for each object both with, and without the aforementioned prior are made available to the reader in tabular form...