In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding by showing that more distant galaxies recede faster from Earth than nearby ones. Hubble’s measurements of the expansion rate, now called the Hubble constant, had relatively large errors, but astronomers have since found ways of measuring it with increasing precision. One way is direct and entails measuring the distance to far-away galaxies, whereas another is indirect and involves using cosmic microwave background (CMB) data. However, over the last decade a mismatch between the values derived from the two methods has become apparent. Adam Riess from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, US, and colleagues have now made a more precise direct measurement that reinforces the mismatch and could signal new physics.

Riess and co-workers’ new value relies on improved measurements of the distances to distant galaxies, and builds on previous work by the team. The measurements are based on more precise measurements of type Ia supernovae within the galaxies. Such supernovae have a known luminosity profile, so their distances from Earth can be determined from how bright they are observed to be. But their luminosity needs to be calibrated – a process that requires an exact measurement of their distance, which is typically rather large.

To calibrate their luminosity, Riess and his team used Cepheid stars, which are closer to Earth than type Ia supernovae. Cepheids have an oscillating apparent brightness, the period of which is directly related to their luminosity, and so their apparent brightness can also be used to measure their distance. Riess and colleagues measured the distance to Cepheids in the Milky Way using parallax measurements from the Hubble Space Telescope, which determine the apparent shift of the stars against the background sky as the Earth moves to the other side of the Sun. The researchers measured this minute shift for several Cepheids, giving a direct measurement of their distance. The team then used this measurement to estimate the distance to distant galaxies containing such stars, which in turn can be used to calibrate the luminosity of supernovae in those galaxies. Finally, they used this calibration to determine the distance to even more distant galaxies with supernovae. Using such a “distance ladder”, the team obtained a value for the Hubble constant of  73.5 ± 1.7   km s–1 Mpc–1. This value is more precise than the 73.2 ± 1.8   km s–1 Mpc–1 value obtained by the team in 2016, and it is 3.7 sigma away from the 66.9 ± 0.6   km s–1 Mpc–1 value derived from CMB observations made by the Planck satellite.

Reiss and colleagues’ results therefore reinforce the discrepancy between the results obtained through the two methods. Although each method is complex and may thus be subject to error, the discrepancy is now at a level that a coincidence seems unlikely. It is difficult to imagine that systematic errors in the distance-ladder method are the root cause of the tension, says the team. Figuring out the nature of the discrepancy is pivotal because the Hubble constant is used to calculate several cosmological quantities, such as the age of the universe. If the discrepancy is not due to errors, explaining it will require new physics beyond the current standard model of cosmology. But future data could also potentially help to identify the source of the discrepancy. Upcoming Cepheid data from ESA’s Gaia satellite could reduce the uncertainty in the distance-ladder value, and new measurements of the expansion rate using a third method based on observations of gravitational waves could throw new light on the problem.

Further reading

A Riess et al. 2018 Astrophys. J. 855 136.