NewsDio.com Staff : One of the predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is that any spinning body drags the very fabric of space-time in its vicinity around with it. This is known as “frame-dragging”.
Luckily for us, the Universe contains many naturally occurring gravitational laboratories where physicists can observe Einstein’s predictions at work in exquisite detail.
Our team’s research, published today in Science, reveals evidence of frame-dragging on a much more noticeable scale, using a radio telescope and a unique pair of compact stars whizzing around each other at dizzying speeds.
The motion of these stars would have perplexed astronomers in Newton’s time, as they clearly move in a warped space-time, and require Einstein’s general theory of relativity to explain their trajectories.
General relativity is the foundation of modern gravitational theory. It explains the precise motion of the stars, planets and satellites, and even the flow of time. One of its lesser-known predictions is that spinning bodies drag space-time around with them. The faster an object spins and the more massive it is, the more powerful the drag.
One type of object for which this is very relevant is called a white dwarf. These are the leftover cores from dead stars that were once several times the mass of our Sun, but have since exhausted their hydrogen fuel.
The frame-dragging caused by such a white dwarf would be roughly 100 million times as powerful as Earth’s.
That is all well and good, but we can’t fly to a white dwarf and launch satellites around it. Fortunately, however, nature is kind to astronomers and has its own way of letting us observe them, via orbiting stars called pulsars.
Twenty years ago, CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope discovered a unique stellar pair consisting of a white dwarf (about the size of Earth but about 300,000 times heavier) and a radio pulsar (just the size of a city but 400,000 times heavier).
Compared with white dwarfs, pulsars are in another league altogether. They are made not of conventional atoms, but of neutrons packed tightly together, making them incredibly dense. What’s more, the pulsar in our study spins 150 times every minute.
This mean that, 150 times every minute, a “lighthouse beam” of radio waves emitted by this pulsar sweeps past our vantage point here on Earth. We can use this to map the path of the pulsar as it orbits the white dwarf, by timing when its pulse arrives at our telescope and knowing the speed of light. This method revealed that the two stars orbit one another in less than 5 hours.
Mapping the evolution of orbits is not for the impatient, but our measurements are ridiculously precise. Although PSR J1141-6545 is several hundred quadrillion kilometres away (a quadrillion is a million billion), we know the pulsar rotates 2.5387230404 times per second, and that its orbit is tumbling in space.
This means the plane of its orbit is not fixed, but instead is slowly rotating.