Astronomers witness the dragging of space-time in stellar cosmic dance

An international team of astrophysicists led by Australian Professor Matthew Bailes, from the ARC Centre of Excellence of Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), has shown exciting new evidence for ‘frame-dragging’—how the spinning of a celestial body twists space and time—after tracking the orbit of an exotic stellar pair for almost two decades. The data, which is further evidence for Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, is published today the journal Science.

More than a century ago, Albert Einstein published his iconic theory of General Relativity—that the force of gravity arises from the curvature of space and time and that objects, such as the Sun and the Earth, change this geometry. Advances in instrumentation have led to a flood of recent (Nobel prize-winning) science from phenomena further afield linked to General Relativity. The discovery of gravitational waves was announced in 2016; the first image of a black hole shadow and stars orbiting the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy was published just last year.

Almost 20 years ago, a team led by Swinburne University of Technology’s Professor Bailes—director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav)—started observing two stars rotating around each other at astonishing speeds with the CSIRO Parkes 64-metre radio telescope. One is a white dwarf, the size of the Earth but 300,000 times its density; the other is a neutron star which, while only 20 kilometres in diameter, is about 100 billion times the density of the Earth. The system, which was discovered at Parkes, is a relativistic-wonder system that goes by the name “PSR J1141-6545.”

Before the star blew up (becoming a neutron star), a million or so years ago, it began to swell up discarding its outer core which fell onto the white dwarf nearby. This falling debris made the white dwarf spin faster and faster, until its day was only measured in terms of minutes.

In 1918 (three years after Einstein published his Theory), Austrian mathematicians Josef Lense and Hans Thirring realised that if Einstein was right all rotating bodies should ‘drag’ the very fabric of space time around with them. In everyday life, the effect is miniscule and almost undetectable. Earlier this century, the first experimental evidence for this effect was seen in gyroscopes orbiting the Earth, whose orientation was dragged in the direction of the Earth’s spin. A rapidly spinning white dwarf, like the one in PSR J1141-6545, drags space-time 100 million times as strongly!

A pulsar in orbit around such a white dwarf presents a unique opportunity to explore Einstein’s theory in a new ultra-relativistic regime.

Source: “Astronomers witness the dragging of space-time in stellar cosmic dance” PhysOrg, 30 January 2020 <https://phys.org/news/2020-01-astronomers-witness-space-time-stellar-cosmic.html>.

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