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GRAVITY Confirms Predictions of General Relativity Near Galactic Center
by Staff Writers
Paris, France (SPX) Jul 27, 2018

Sagittarius A and its star cluster

Observations made with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have, for the first time, detected the effects of general relativity predicted by Einstein, in the movement of a star passing into the intense gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, a massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

These results were obtained by the GRAVITY consortium, led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Germany and also involving the CNRS, the Paris Observatory (PSL), the Universite Grenoble-Alpes and several French universities. These findings, the culmination of 26 years of observations using telescopes at the ESO in Chile, are published by the GRAVITY consortium on 26 July 2018 in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) sits at the centre of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years from Earth. This black hole, which has a mass 4 million times that of the Sun, is surrounded by a star cluster - the S stars - which reach mind-boggling speeds when they approach the hole.

General relativity describes the effects of matter on the movement of stars, and more specifically, in this case, the effects of a black hole on the stars surrounding it. The stars of Sgr A*, located in the Milky Way's most powerful gravitational field, are a perfect laboratory in which to test Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Astronomers used three VLTs - NACO, SINFONI, and more recently GRAVITY - to follow one particular star in the Sgr A* system - S2 - before and after it passed close to the black hole on 19 May 2018. GRAVITY achieved a resolution of 50 microarcseconds: the angle at which a tennis ball placed on the Moon would be visible from Earth.

This accuracy made it possible to detect the hour-by-hour movement of S2 as close as possible to the black hole. When S2 passed by Sgr A* at a distance just 120 times that of the Earth from the Sun, it reached an orbital velocity of 8,000 km/s: 2.7% of the speed of light. These extreme conditions suffice for the S2 star to be subjected to the effects of general relativity.

By combining previous measurements made using NACO and SINFONI with GRAVITY's precision on the position of S2, astronomers were able to detect the gravitational redshift which Einstein predicted.

Redshift affects light sources that are in a gravitational field; in this case, the black hole. The phenomenon produces a shift in wavelength toward the red part of the spectrum which is detected by a measuring instrument. This is the first time the effect has been measured in the gravitational field of a black hole.

These results are perfectly in line with the general theory of relativity (and not explained by Newton's theory, which excludes such a shift). They are a major breakthrough towards better understanding the effects of intense gravitational fields. Shifts in the trajectory of S2 due to gravity will be detected in a few months, and could yield information on mass distribution around the black hole.

"Detection of the Gravitational Redshift in the Orbit of the Star S2 Near the Galactic Centre Massive Black Hole," GRAVITY Collaboration, 2018 July 26, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Related Links
Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique
The Physics of Time and Space

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How to weigh stars with gravitational lensing
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 24, 2018
Every star in the Milky Way is in motion. But because of the distances their changes in position, the so-called proper motions, are very small and can only be measured using large telescopes over long time periods. In very rare cases, a foreground star passes a star in the background, at close proximity as seen from Earth. Light from this background star must cross the gravitational field of the foreground star where, instead of following straight paths, the light rays are bent. This is like a len ... read more

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