After more than 2 decades tracking one black hole, researchers observed a star move past, verifying Einstein's theory of relativity.
This animation shows the orbit of the star S2 around the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.
That mass is concentrated into a tiny volume. The black hole at the centre of the galaxy is about 10 times the size of the sun in diameter, but has a mass of about 4m solar masses. This is a region of completely collapsed mass, known to exist as a effect of Einstein's vision of gravity. "But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution". Their orbits should therefore agree with both Newton and Einstein. Its extremely strong gravitational field influences the surrounding area and has an impact on the motion of stars passing by. That's a tiny distance on galactic scales. Here, the star moved at a speed in excess of 25 million kilometres per hour - nearly three percent of the speed of light.
On Thursday, astronomers announced the first observations of the effect of a black hole's gravitational redshift - light coming from a star in the gravitational field near a black hole looked redder than it would've outside the black hole's influence. Could measurements be made that were precise enough to test the nature of gravity? However, due to distortion from Earth's atmosphere and various other interferences between here and there, they had to use four separate telescopes in the Very Large Telescope array at the same time.
Information was observed by and collected with the GRAVITY, SINFONI, and NACO instruments on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT).
A team of scientists working with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in Chile, recently concluded a 26 year study to determine what happens when a star passes by a black hole.
But as it drew closer still, the star seemed to increase in speed, peaking at more than 200km/s faster than expected. Using a telescope more powerful than astronomers of his day could even dream of, researchers peering at a distant black hole have confirmed that Einstein's assumptions about light wavelengths were spot-on. Another effect was in play, as the light from the star had to fight against the increased pull of gravity. This region, with the strongest gravitational field in our galaxy, is the ideal place to explore gravitational physics, and particularly to test Einstein's general theory of relativity. Light from the star is stretched to longer wavelengths by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, making it appear red. "We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects".
Some astronomers hope that these measurements will become so precise as to eventually show discrepancies that go against the general theory of relativity, ushering in a revolution in our understanding of gravity.
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