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Unusual three-star system promises new test of gravity

Measurements of pulsar and white dwarfs could bolster or dethrone general relativity

4:19pm, January 6, 2014

TRIPLE THREAT  A pulsar (left) is orbited by two white dwarfs — one close in, one farther away — in this illustration of the system PSR J0337+1715. The curved blue lines show the pulsar’s magnetic field and the blue cones show the radiation the star sends into space. Astronomers measuring this radiation will try to test general relativity, the leading theory of gravity, to unprecedented precision.

A unique threesome of stars locked in tight, circular orbits could help astronomers test the leading theory of gravity to unprecedented precision. The discovery of the celestial trio is reported January 5 in Nature.

“We should be grateful to the universe for making such things,” says Paulo Freire, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, who applauds the finding. “Part of me wishes I were involved.”

Our galaxy is full of stellar couples and trios. But the formations and motions of the stars in PSR J0337+1715 make the system unique among those found by astronomers. The triad consists of an extremely dense, fast-rotating stellar corpse called a pulsar and two less massive dying stars known as white dwarfs. Pulsars form when stars at least 1.4 times larger than our sun blow up in supernovas; these powerful explosions usually knock nearby stars out

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