Astronomers Observe a Star Dragging Space-Time With It in a Cosmic Stellar Dance

Einstein's theory of relativity has been proven right once again.
Fabienne Lang
Illustration of a rapidly spinning neutron star and a white dwarfMark Myers/OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence

Space-time is indeed churned by huge rotating bodies, just as scientists predicted. A team of astronomers has witnessed space and time swirling around a dead star, confirming yet another prediction from Einstein's theory of relativity.

The prediction is what's called frame-dragging, or the Lense-Thirring effect. It states that space-time will turn around a huge, rotating body.

Now, astronomers have caught this in precise detail and shared it in a study published in the journal Science on Friday.


Frame-dragging in Space

Previously, satellite experiments have caught the effects of frame-dragging around the gravitational pull of Earth. It's an extremely small effect, making it tough to measure, though. So astronomers have been searching to witness the phenomenon on bigger, more powerful sources such as a white dwarf and neutron stars.

Astronomers Observe a Star Dragging Space-Time With It in a Cosmic Stellar Dance
Artist's illustration of frame-dragging, Source: Mark Myers/OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence

The scientists of this study focused on the PSR J1141-6545, a young pulsar located approximately 10,000 to 25,000 light-years away from Earth.

A pulsar is a fast-spinning neutron star that gives out radio waves along its magnetic pole. 

PSR J1141-6545 circles around a white dwarf in a tight and speedy orbit that only lasts about five hours — clearly much faster than our Earth's 24 hours. White dwarfs are extremely dense cores of dead stars that are roughly the size of our Earth. 

The study's lead author, Vivek Venkatraman Krishnan, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, told that the pulsar rushes through Space at around 997,793 kph (620,000 mph).

The authors of the study measured the pulsar's pulses with an accuracy of 100 microseconds in the space of nearly 20 years using the Parkes and UTMOST radio telescopes in Australia. Good things come to those who wait is a clear statement to be made here.

The scientists' patience assisted them in detecting a long-term drift in the manner in which the pulsar and the white dwarf orbit each other. 

Astronomers Observe a Star Dragging Space-Time With It in a Cosmic Stellar Dance
A white dwarf being spun by the travel of matter from its companion, Source: ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery

The scientists concluded this must be frame-dragging, and that the white dwarf swirls on its axis around 30 times an hour.

"Systems like PSR J1141-6545, where the pulsar is younger than the white dwarf, are quite rare," Venkatraman Krishnan said. The new study "confirms a long-standing hypothesis of how this binary system came to be, something that was proposed over two decades ago."

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