After nearly a decade of careful observations an international team of astronomers has measured the distance to our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, more accurately than ever before. This new measurement also improves our knowledge of the rate of expansion of the Universe — the Hubble Constant — and is a crucial step towards understanding the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is causing the expansion to accelerate. The team used telescopes at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile as well as others around the globe. These results appear in the 7 March 2013 issue of the journal Nature.
Image: This artist’s impression shows an eclipsing binary star system. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
Astronomers survey the scale of the Universe by first measuring the distances to close-by objects and then using them as standard candles  to pin down distances further and further out into the cosmos. But this chain is only as accurate as its weakest link. Up to now finding an accurate distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of the nearest galaxies to the Milky Way, has proved elusive. As stars in this galaxy are used to fix the distance scale for more remote galaxies, it is crucially important.
But careful observations of a rare class of double star have now allowed a team of astronomers to deduce a much more precise value for the LMC distance: 163 000 light-years.
“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,” says Wolfgang Gieren (Universidad de Concepción, Chile) and one of the leaders of the team. “Now we have solved this problem by demonstrably having a result accurate to 2%.”