Though the universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, the discovery of a single variable star in 1923 altered the course of modern astronomy. And, at least one famous astronomer of the time lamented that the discovery had shattered his world view. The star goes by the inauspicious name of Hubble variable number one, or V1, and resides in the outer regions of the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, or M31. But in the early 1900s, most astronomers considered the Milky Way a single “island universe” of stars, with nothing observable beyond its boundaries. Andromeda was cataloged as just one of many faint, fuzzy patches of light astronomers called “spiral nebulae.”
Were these spiral nebulae part of the Milky Way or were they independent island universes lying outside our galaxy? Astronomers didn’t know for sure, until Edwin Hubble found a star in Andromeda that brightened and faded in a predictable pattern, like a lighthouse beacon, and identified it as V1, a Cepheid variable. This special type of star had already been proven to be a reliable distance marker within our galaxy. The star helped Hubble show that Andromeda was beyond our galaxy and settled the debate over the status of the spiral nebulae. The universe became a much bigger place after Hubble’s discovery, much to the dismay of astronomer Harlow Shapley, who believed the fuzzy nebulae were part of our Milky Way.
Nearly 90 years later, V1 is in the spotlight again. Astronomers pointed Edwin Hubble’s namesake, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, at the star once again, in a symbolic tribute to the legendary astronomer’s milestone observation.
“V1 is the most important star in the history of cosmology,” says astronomer Dave Soderblom of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., who proposed the V1 observations.
Read the whole article here with video Hubble views the star that changed the universe.