Einstein’s theory of relativity, critical for GPS, seen in distant stars

While scientists have found incontrovertible evidence of gravitational redshifts in our solar system, it has been challenging to observe them in more distant objects across space. The new Chandra results provide convincing evidence for gravitational redshift effects at play in a new cosmic setting. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered the phenomenon in two stars orbiting each other in our galaxy about 29,000 light-years (200,000 trillion miles) away from Earth.

The intriguing system known as 4U 1916-053 contains two stars in a remarkably close orbit. One is the core of a star that has had its outer layers stripped away, leaving a star that is much denser than the Sun. The other is a neutron star, an even denser object created when a massive star collapses in a supernova explosion. The neutron star (grey) is shown in this artist’s impression at the center of a disk of hot gas pulled away from its companion (white star on left).

CREDITS: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

These two compact stars are only about 350,000 km apart, roughly the distance between the Earth and the Moon. While the Moon orbits our planet once a month, the dense companion star in 4U 1916-053 whips around the neutron star and completes a full orbit in only 50 minutes.

In the new work on 4U 1916-053, the team analyzed X-ray spectra — that is, the amounts of X-rays at different wavelengths — from Chandra. They found the characteristic signature of the absorption of X-ray light by iron and silicon in the spectra. In three separate observations with Chandra, the data show a sharp drop in the detected amount of X-rays close to the wavelengths where the iron or silicon atoms are expected to absorb the X-rays. One of the spectra showing absorption by iron is included in the main graphic, and an additional graphic shows a spectrum with absorption by silicon.

However, the wavelengths of these characteristic signatures of iron and silicon were shifted to longer, or redder wavelengths compared to the laboratory values found here on Earth (shown with the dashed line). The researchers found that the shift of the absorption features was the same in each of the three Chandra observations, and that it was too large to be explained by motion away from us. Instead they concluded it was caused by gravitational redshift.

How does this connect with General Relativity and GPS? As predicted by Einstein’s theory, clocks under the force of gravity run at a slower rate than clocks viewed from a distant region experiencing weaker gravity. This means that clocks on Earth observed from orbiting satellites run at a slower rate. To have the high precision needed for GPS, this effect needs to be taken into account or there will be small differences in time that would add up quickly, calculating inaccurate positions.

This is the first strong evidence for absorption signatures being shifted to longer wavelengths by gravity in a pair of stars that has either a neutron star or black hole. Strong evidence for gravitational redshifts in absorption has previously been observed from the surface of white dwarfs, with wavelength shifts typically only about 15% of that for 4U 1916-053.

Source: “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Critical For GPS, Seen In Distant Stars” NASA, 22 October 2020

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