They are pulsating horizontal branch stars of spectral class A or F, with a mass of around half the Sun's. They are thought to have shed mass during the red-giant branch phase, and were once stars of similar or slightly less mass than the Sun, around 0.8 solar masses.
H-R diagram for globular clusterM5, with the horizontal branch marked in yellow and known RR Lyrae stars in green
In surveys of globular clusters, these "cluster-type" variables were being rapidly identified in the mid-1890s, especially by E. C. Pickering.
Probably the first star of definitely RR Lyrae type found outside a cluster was U Leporis, discovered by J. Kapteyn in 1890.
The prototype star RR Lyrae was discovered prior to 1899 by Williamina Fleming, and reported by Pickering in 1900 as "indistinguishable from cluster-type variables".
From 1915 to the 1930s, the RR Lyraes became increasingly accepted as a class of star distinct from the classical Cepheids, due to their shorter periods, differing locations within the galaxy, and chemical differences. RR Lyrae variables are metal-poor, Population II stars.
RR Lyrae stars were formerly called "cluster variables" because of their strong (but not exclusive) association with globular clusters; conversely, over 80% of all variables known in globular clusters are RR Lyraes. RR Lyrae stars are found at all galactic latitudes, as opposed to classical Cepheids, which are strongly associated with the galactic plane.
Because of their old age, RR Lyraes are commonly used to trace certain populations in the Milky Way, including the halo and thick disk.
Several times as many RR Lyraes are known as all Cepheids combined; in the 1980s, about 1900 were known in globular clusters. Some estimates have about 85000 in the Milky Way.
Though binary star systems are common for typical stars, RR Lyrae are very rarely observed in pairs.
RR Lyrae stars pulse in a manner similar to Cepheid variables, but the nature and histories of these stars is thought to be rather different. Like all variables on the Cepheid instability strip, pulsations are caused by the κ-mechanism, when the opacity of ionised helium varies with its temperature.
Unlike Cepheid variables, RR Lyrae variables do not follow a strict period-luminosity relationship at visual wavelengths, although they do in the infrared K band. They are normally analysed using a period-colour-relationship, for example using a Wesenheit function. In this way, they can be used as standard candles for distance measurements although there are difficulties with the effects of metallicity, faintness, and blending. The effect of blending can impact RR Lyrae variables sampled near the cores of globular clusters, which are so dense that in low-resolution observations multiple (unresolved) stars may appear as a single target. Thus the brightness measured for that seemingly single star (e.g., an RR Lyrae variable) is erroneously too bright, given those unresolved stars contributed to the brightness determined. Consequently, the computed distance is wrong, and certain researchers have argued that the blending effect can introduce a systematic uncertainty into the cosmic distance ladder, and may bias the estimated age of the Universe and the Hubble constant.
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^Lee, Jae-Woo; López-Morales, Mercedes; Hong, Kyeongsoo; Kang, Young-Woon; Pohl, Brian L.; Walker, Alistair (2014). "Toward a Better Understanding of the Distance Scale from RR Lyrae Variable Stars: A Case Study for the Inner Halo Globular Cluster NGC 6723". The Astrophysical Journal Supplement. 210: 6. arXiv:1311.2054. Bibcode:2014ApJS..210....6L. doi:10.1088/0067-0049/210/1/6.
^Neeley, J. R.; Marengo, M.; Bono, G.; Braga, V. F.; Dall'Ora, M.; Stetson, P. B.; Buonanno, R.; Ferraro, I.; Freedman, W. L.; Iannicola, G.; Madore, B. F.; Matsunaga, N.; Monson, A.; Persson, S. E.; Scowcroft, V.; Seibert, M. (2015). "On the Distance of the Globular Cluster M4 (NGC 6121) Using RR Lyrae Stars. II. Mid-infrared Period-luminosity Relations". The Astrophysical Journal. 808: 11. arXiv:1505.07858. Bibcode:2015ApJ...808...11N. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/808/1/11.