In the vastness of space, how far is far? That question has simmered in G. Fritz Benedict‘s mind since he was 8, when a family friend took him into the backyard of his home and pointed to the constellation Orion. “Something in my brain went ‘snap,’ ” said Benedict, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin. The experience set him on a lifelong quest to answer one of the most arcane questions in astronomy: How exactly do you measure the universe? While most of his peers went to work on the big questions of the universe — uniting gravity and quantum mechanics, searching for extraterrestrial life or figuring out how the universe will end — Benedict has obsessed over one set of measurements: the distance to a type of star known as a Cepheid. His Cepheid quest began in the summer of 1977. He was vacationing in Ohio when he got a call from a professor at the university telling him NASA was preparing to put a telescope in orbit, soon to be named Hubble. There were thousands of ideas for the device, but a small group realized that it would be the perfect instrument to determine the distance to a Cepheid. The original members of the Space Telescope Astrometry Team were a who’s who of the field, led by Yale’s Van Altena. In 2003 — 26 years after the astrometry team was assembled — Benedict received an e-mail from NASA. The Cepheid project was on. The task of analyzing the data from Hubble fell to a former molecular biologist who spent five years studying RNA and DNA sequences in mice for cancer research. (McDonald Observatory scientist) Barbara McArthur joined the astrometric group after answering an ad for a computer analyst; she was hired thanks to her tirelessly obsessive mind for detail. Using Hubble’s fine eyesight, McArthur, with the help of graduate student Jacob Bean, could calculate a parallax for each Cepheid down to a level of a few milliarcseconds — the equivalent of measuring a few inches from 1,500 miles away.
Los Angeles Times
Going the Distance in Space