Star Dancing Around Black Hole Proves Einstein Was Right

Sorry, Isaac Newton.

Observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed for the first time that a star orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way moves just as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. (ESO / L. Calçada)

(CN) — Researchers have successfully discovered and tracked a rare star that orbits a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy — and their findings further validate the theories of Albert Einstein.

A study published Thursday in Astronomy & Astrophysics reveals a team of international researchers have successfully tracked the orbital patterns of star thousands of light-years away in an effort that took nearly three decades to complete. Researchers say that these findings not only shed light on the mysterious black hole situated in the center of the Milky Way, but also solidifies Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Using observational data from the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Northern Chile, researchers have been able to gradually measure over time a faraway stat that researchers have dubbed S2. What makes S2 so special is that it follows an orbital pattern that takes it shockingly close to the massive radio source Sagittarius A*, a giant celestial region of space scientists have long believed is home to the Milky Way’s only supermassive black hole.

While the tracking the orbital patterns of stars is by no means a new practice in astronomy, S2 follows an orbital path that takes about 16 years to complete — forcing researchers to patiently observe and measure its progress over the course of decades. Because S2 has an orbital path that takes it closer and further away from its orbital center, not unlike how Earth travels closer and further away from the sun, S2 at one point finds itself just 12 billion miles away from the black hole believed to be situated inside Sagittarius A*.

Researchers say the behavioral patterns of S2 when it reaches this critical point in its journey directly proves Einstein’s theory of relativity. This is because S2 has what is known as a precessing orbit, an orbital pattern that causes S2 to be at different location each time it finds its closest point to the supermassive black hole. This change has a pattern, however, as each time the orbit changes it finds itself rotated when compared its previous one. This creates a type of rosette shape, similar to the common rose.

It is this exact shape and means of accomplishing it that Einstein suggested in his theory of general relativity roughly a hundred years ago. Previous theories proposed by Isaac Newton said this shape would be closer to an ellipse, a type of oval, a theory Einstein contradicted with his rosette-shaped theory.

Reinhard Genzel, director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, said that this study’s findings show that Einstein was correct. 

“Einstein’s general relativity predicts that bound orbits of one object around another are not closed, as in Newtonian Gravity, but precess forwards in the plane of motion, “Genzel said with the release of the study. “This famous effect — first seen in the orbit of the planet Mercury around the sun — was the first evidence in favor of general relativity. One hundred years later we have now detected the same effect in the motion of a star orbiting the compact radio source Sagittarius A* at the center of the Milky Way.”

This type of pattern found in Einstein’s general relativity has come to be known as the Schwarzschild precession, and it has never been observed before in a star orbiting a supermassive black hole.

These findings do more than just prove Einstein right, however. Researchers report that these observations can also teach astronomers much about the behavior and makeup of black holes themselves.

Guy Perrin and Karine Perraut, leading scientists on the project, said that these new findings can give researchers the tools they need to better understand not just how black holes are formed, but how they evolve over time.

“Because the S2 measurements follow General Relativity so well, we can set stringent limits on how much invisible material, such as distributed dark matter or possible smaller black holes, is present around Sagittarius A*. This is of great interest for understanding the formation and evolution of supermassive black holes,” the authors said with the release of the study.

Researchers are hopeful that these breakthroughs are just the beginning. With construction currently underway on the Extremely Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory, it may soon become possible to observe stars even closer to the supermassive black hole. This would bring scientists even closer to understanding how the laws of space and time are influenced by the mysterious center of the Milky Way and help them to further unravel some of the countless cosmic mysteries still to be solved.

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