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RR Lyraes are pulsating horizontal branch stars of spectral class A (and rarely F), with a mass of around half the Sun's. They are thought to have previously shed mass and consequently, they were once stars with similar or slightly less mass than the Sun, around 0.8 solar masses.
RR Lyrae stars pulse in a manner similar to Cepheid variables, so the mechanism for the pulsation is thought to be similar, but the nature and histories of these stars is thought to be rather different. In contrast to Cepheids, RR Lyraes are old, relatively low mass, metal-poor "Population II" stars. They are much more common than Cepheids, but also much less luminous. The average absolute magnitude of an RR Lyrae is about 0.75, only 40 or 50 times brighter than our Sun. Their period is shorter, typically less than one day, sometimes ranging down to seven hours.
The relationship between pulsation period and absolute magnitude of RR Lyraes makes them good standard candles for relatively near objects, especially within the Milky Way. They are extensively used in globular cluster studies, and also used to study chemical properties of older stars.
RR Lyrae stars were formerly called "cluster variables" because of their strong (but not exclusive) association with globular clusters; conversely, about 90% of all variables known in globular clusters are RR Lyraes. RR Lyrae stars are found at all galactic latitudes, as opposed to classical Cepheid variables, which are strongly associated with the galactic plane.
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.
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.
From 1915 to the 1930s, the RR Lyraes became increasingly accepted as a class of star distinct from the Cepheids, due to their shorter periods, differing locations within the galaxy, and chemical differences from classical Cepheids, being mostly metal-poor, Population II stars.
RR Lyraes have proven difficult to observe in external galaxies because of their intrinsic faintness. (In fact, Walter Baade's failure to find them in the Andromeda galaxy led him to suspect that the galaxy was much farther away than predicted, to reconsider the calibration of Cepheid variables, and to propose the concept of stellar populations.) Using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in the 1980s, Pritchet & van den Bergh found Lyraes in Andromeda's galactic halo and, more recently, in its globular clusters.