This vibrant image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope released by NASA August 31, 2006, shows the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way galaxy. (Photo : Reuters)
The universe just got smaller. A "satellite galaxy," known as the Large Magellanic Cloud, neighbors our own Milky Way galaxy as much as 40,000 light-years closer than previously thought, astronomers said in a recent study.
"I am very excited because astronomers have been trying for a hundred years to accurately measure the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud and it has proved to be extremely difficult," said Wolfgang Gieren, an astronomer at Chile's Universidad de Concepción, Chile, in a statement to Space.com. "Now we have solved this problem by demonstrably having a result accurate to 2 percent."
The study's research holds tremendous potential for the future of determining the distance of galaxies, planets, stars and more in space.
Astronomers hope the more accurate information will allow scientists to better understand how rapidly the universe is expanding and finally explain the riddle of dark energy. The newest measurements recorded in the study improved upon earlier predictions of our distance from the Large Magellanic Cloud, placing the nebulous-shaped galaxy about 163,000 light years away from the Milky Way, according to Science Codex. Earlier assumptions about the LMC's distance believed the galaxy was somewhere between 150,000 light-years and 200,000 light-years away from Earth. However, those estimates were flawed because they were "based on methods that had inherent uncertainties."
"Because the LMC is close and contains a significant number of different stellar distance indicators, hundreds of distance measurements using it have been recorded over the years," explained researcher Ian Thompson of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., Space.com reported. "Unfortunately, nearly all the determinations have systemic errors, with each method carrying its own uncertainties."
Roughly 10 billion times as large as our own sun, the LMC is now the third-nearest galaxy to the Milky Way, according to BusinessInsider. By astronomers locking down a more accurate measurement of the distance between the LMC and Earth, scientists should be able to calculate other intervals in space with greater precision because "measurements of close distances are used to calibrate measurements of far-off objects," Space.com noted.
The study's lead researchers explain their methodology: "ESO provided the perfect suite of telescopes and instruments for the observations needed for this project: HARPS for extremely accurate radial velocities of relatively faint stars, and SOFI for precise measurements of how bright the stars appeared in the infrared," said Grzegorz Pietrzyński, head author of the paper, Science Codex reported.
Astronomers say the new research paves the way for even more precise measurements of objects throughout the universe and beyond.
"We are working to improve our method still further and hope to have a 1 percent LMC distance in a very few years from now," said scientist Dariusz Graczyk. "This has far-reaching consequences not only for cosmology, but for many fields of astrophysics."