(Submitted April 25, 1998)
Does anyone actually know what exactly Cepheid variables are and
what causes the fluctuation in absolute magnitude? Also, why is
the period of Population I Cepheid variables proportional to their
distance from our solar system - is this a relativistic effect?
The Cepheids are pulsating variables: The radius and the surface temperature
of a Cepheid change periodically so the overall brightness varies.
The temperatures of the Cepheids are in the 6000-8000K range, which is
when hydrogen atoms become ionized, and this causes the opacity of the
atmosphere to change. When the opacity is high, meaning that the radiation
has a hard time getting out, in a particular region of the atmosphere,
the supply of energy from stellar interior gets trapped there. So the
temperature and the pressure increase in this region. This eventually
causes expansion, which causes atmosphere to become more transparent...
The periods of Cepheids are not related to their distances. The are
linked with the true brightness (and hence called the Period-Luminosity
relationship). We can easily measure the apparent brightness and the
period of the pulsation of a Cepheid variable. Since the apparent
brightness depends on the true brightness and distance, we can use the
measurements to infer the distance to this Cepheid.
Hope this helps.
for Ask an Astrophysicist