A star orbiting a black hole shows Einstein got gravity right — again

It’s the first time an effect of general relativity has been observed in such an environment

supermassive black hole illustration

BLACK HOLE SUN  Einstein’s theory of gravity was upheld in measurements of a star that recently made a close pass by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, as shown in this artist’s conception illustrating the star’s trajectory over the past few months.

M. Kornmesser/ESO

A single star, careening around the monster black hole in the center of the Milky Way, has provided astronomers with new proof that Albert Einstein was right about gravity.

More than 100 years ago, Einstein’s general theory of relativity revealed that gravity is the result of matter curving the fabric of spacetime (SN: 10/17/15, p. 16). Now, in a paper published July 26 in Astronomy & Astrophysics, a team of researchers reports the observation of a hallmark of general relativity known as gravitational redshift. The measurement is the first time general relativity has been confirmed in the region near a supermassive black hole.

As light escapes a region with a strong gravitational field, its waves get stretched out, making the light redder, in a process known as gravitational redshift. The scientists, a team known as the GRAVITY collaboration, used the Very Large Telescope array, located in the Atacama Desert of Chile, to demonstrate that light from the star was redshifted by just the amount predicted by general relativity.

Scientists have observed gravitational redshift before. In fact, GPS satellites would fail to function properly if gravitational redshift weren’t taken into account. But such effects have never been seen in the vicinity of a black hole. “That’s completely new, and I think that’s what makes it exciting — doing these same experiments not on Earth or in the solar system, but near a black hole,” says physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved with the new study.

At the Milky Way’s heart there lurks a hulking supermassive black hole, with a mass about 4 million times that of the sun. Many stars swirl around this black hole (SN Online: 1/12/18). The researchers zeroed in on one star, known as S2, which completes an elliptical orbit around the black hole every 16 years.

CLOSE ENCOUNTER A swarm of stars orbits the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, shown in this simulation. L. Calçada/spaceengine.org/ESO

In May 2018, the star made its closest approach to the black hole, zipping by at 3 percent of the speed of light — extremely fast for a star. At that point, the star was just 20 billion kilometers from the black hole. That may sound far away, but it’s only about four times the distance between the sun and Neptune.

Measuring the effects of general relativity in the black hole’s neighborhood is challenging because the region is jam-packed with stars, says astrophysicist Tuan Do of UCLA, who studies S2, but was not involved with this work. If attempting to observe this region with a run-of-the-mill telescope, “you’ll just see this big blur.”

To obtain precise measurements and pinpoint individual stars in the crowd, the scientists used a technique called adaptive optics (SN Online: 7/18/18), which can counteract the distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, and combined information from four telescopes in the Very Large Telescope’s array. “You can bring the light together from these four telescopes and thereby generate a super telescope … and that does the trick,” says study coauthor Reinhard Genzel, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Genzel and colleagues have been observing this star for decades, since before its previous swing by the black hole 16 years ago.

In future work, the scientists hope to test other aspects of general relativity, including the theory’s prediction that S2’s orbit should rotate over time. A similar rotation was previously seen in Mercury’s orbit around the sun, which puzzled astronomers until Einstein’s theory explained the effect (SN Online: 4/11/18).

The GRAVITY researchers might find other stars that orbit even closer to the black hole, allowing them to better understand the black hole and further scrutinize general relativity. If that happens, Will says, “they’ll really start to explore this black hole up close and personal, and it’ll be a very cool new set of tests of Einstein’s theory.”

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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