The Hα surface brightness-radius relation: a robust statistical distance: Indicator for planetary nebulae

David J. Frew*, Q. A. Parker, I. S. Bojičić

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    122 Citations (Scopus)


    Measuring the distances to Galactic planetary nebulae (PNe) has been an intractable problem for many decades. We have now established a robust optical statistical distance indicator, the Hα surface brightness-radius or SHα-r relation, which addresses this problem. We developed this relation from a critically evaluated sample of primary calibrating PNe. The robust nature of the method results from our revised calibrating distances with significantly reduced systematic uncertainties, and the recent availability of high-quality data, including updated nebular diameters and integrated Hα fluxes. The SHα-r technique is simple in its application, requiring only an angular size, an integrated Hα flux, and the reddening to the PN. From these quantities, an intrinsic radius is calculated, which when combined with the angular size, yields the distance directly. Furthermore, we have found that optically thick PNe tend to populate the upper bound of the trend, while optically thin PNe fall along the lower boundary in the SHα-r plane. This enables sub-trends to be developed which offer even better precision in the determination of distances, as good as 18 per cent in the case of optically thin, high-excitation PNe. This is significantly better than any previous statistical indicator. We use this technique to create a catalogue of statistical distances for over 1100 Galactic PNe, the largest such compilation in the literature to date. Finally, in an appendix, we investigate both a set of transitional PNe and a range of PN mimics in the SHα-r plane, to demonstrate its use as a diagnostic tool. Interestingly, stellar ejecta around massive stars plot on a tight locus in SHα-r space with the potential to act as a separate distance indicator for these objects.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1459-1488
    Number of pages30
    JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2016


    • Circumstellarmatter
    • H II regions
    • ISM: bubbles
    • Planetary nebulae: general
    • Stars: distances
    • Techniques: photometric


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