A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Article written: 25 Jun , 2016
Updated: 21 Aug , 2016
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Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com

Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

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24 Responses

  1. seahawkfan76 says

    Its funny how little science knows about black holes, yet they make their theories sound like hard facts. They do not know for fact if light escapes them, yet they insist it cannot etc. God created this vast universe for our enjoyment, and we should explore and discover as much as we can, but don’t act like you know exactly why, how, when, where, and actually all you have is a theory. I am not saying this happens all the time and with every discovery, but it happens quite a bit. The bible is not a science book, but when it talks about scientific things, it is incredibly accurate, and in fact some science laughed at, but since has come to realize that the bible is correct. And much of it is science foreknowledge that was scoffed at, but then science discovered the accuracy of the bibles claims.

    • Harmonograms says

      @Seahawkfan76: The universe is observed to be homogenous, the same everywhere we look. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has proven accurate time and time again here on Earth, so it is likely that it’s also an accurate theory for how the universe works everywhere.

      Don’t think of it as light not being able to escape, but it is the time and space itself being curved due to the presence of mass. This same phenomenon is also responsible for the gravity which affixes you to the Earth.

      The fact that light cannot escape the curvature of space around a BH is a prediction of the ToR.

      The Bible gives us no scientific theories by which we can make accurate predictions about the universe. Science has looked to the ends of the universe and to Supreme Beings, nor any works attributable to them are observed.

      The universe is observed to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. If Gods existed, they would not be bound by our laws of physics and their works would be observed as instances of chaos in the universe. Since the universe perfectly follows the orderly laws of physics, and we can make accurate predictions about the universe based upon scientific theories and laws and we can logically conclude that supreme beings do not exist.

      • seahawkfan76 says

        @Harmongrams: I am sure you already know about the Large quasar group that was discovered that puts a damper on a homogenous universe. So while its all still assumptions and speculation, a homogenous universe is also just that, speculation, and theory. Now about the claim the bible gives us no scientific theory’s by which we can make accurate predictions is also not true. There have been many bible based predictions that led to true scientific discoveries. 1) Animals only vary and reproduce within their created “kinds.” 2) Kinds and species and lack of transitional forms. 3) Predictions concerning genetics and anthropology. 4) Predictions about magnetic fields, radiocarbon, and archaeology. 5) Biblical reliability from medicine to engineering. 6) Path of the sea. The universe has been fine tuned, and it is well known that our existence in this universe depends on numerous cosmological constants and parameters whose numerical values must fall within a very narrow range of values. If even a single variable were off even slightly, we would not exist. Even atheistic evolutionists realize this as a problem. If the physical laws of the universe are merely inherent in the physical universe, and simply evolved to their current status by time and chance along with everything else that exists, then the question arises “why, then, is the universe so fine-tuned? Why do planets and moons not crash into each other during their orbits and so on?

      • Harmonograms says

        Quasars are common within populations of distant young galaxies – the younger distant universe appears the same in every direction. The energy within the universe is observed to be waning as time and space unfolds in a process called universal entropy. What is a “Kind”? Is this some kind of pseudoscientific term you made up? If the universe is fine-tuned, why do we need supreme beings?

      • seahawkfan76 says

        We dont need supreme beings, just the One God who created this vast universe. God is the “Tuner” The vastness of the universe gives testimony to God as Creator. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them.” (Psalm 8:3,4) The heavens are a declaration to the fact of Gods glory. It is a sign to the entire human race that God does exist. The suitability for life to exist and develop on earth is a strong testimony to the existence of a Creator. 1) The precise rate of the earths rotation. 2) The earth is the right size. 3) The earths crust is just the right size. 4) The moon is the right distance from the earth. 5) The composition of atmosphere is perfect to sustain life. 6) The angle of the earth is just right for us to survive. 7) The atmosphere serves as a protective blanket from radiation.Just dense enough to protect earth from twenty million meteors daily. 8) Earth is just right distance from sun, any closer to hot for life, any further to cold for life. 9) The earths tilt regulates temperature across most of the globe. 10) Earths mass determines the strength of its gravity. 11) Earth is big enough to hold onto life sustaining gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide, but not so big that it becomes a toxic giant. 12) Just right distance from sun for water to flow as liquid. 13) Earth has just right chemicals for life., and on and on.

      • DrakTheDrake says

        Your argument that because the various cosmological constants prove that there is a divine creator is inherently flawed. If, as you say, life only exists in the universe because it is the way it is, then this is the only way that we could contemplate it. Your argument seems to rely on the assumption that if the universe was different that we would be able to exist in it and contemplate the fact that we cannot exist in it, but that’s a logical paradox and you freely admit that that’s impossible. Your statement doesn’t preclude, for example, that the universe or other universes may have been created and destroyed through natural processes trillions of times, and this is the only one where life exists because it’s the only one where life could possibly exist.

        I’m not saying that there is not a god (though I do not, personally, believe in one), just that your reasoning does not prove it. If that is how you came to your conclusion of a divine creator, great, there’s nothing wrong with faith, but please don’t try to prove its existence using such flawed logic. It just makes you look silly and ultimately proves that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

        Also, your discussion about animal “kinds” further proves that your knowledge about how evolutionary science works is incomplete. The misconception of “kinds” seems based on nothing more than human definitions of vague, fuzzy concepts of “species” that were created for organizational purposes and not concrete definitions.

      • seahawkfan76 says

        My statements are not at all flawed. I am saying that, and this is even according to scientists, that our universe is finely tuned, and because it is, it must have a tuner, unless you believe that all this just happened by chance and/or accident. Now if you believe that, then I would say your argument is flawed. Now, about your misconception of kinds. The kinds in Genesis refer to those natural species that the world is full of, and which have power to vary within themselves, and in doing so, the members of that species are not all exactly alike, but cannot go out of bounds that God set. It is not the systematic species identified by men.The same criticism you have against “kinds” can also be turned on the “species” concept, which is neither well defined or objective. The bible allows for change or variation within plants and animals. Change is evidence for microevolution, yes, that is a term. But there is no evidence for macroevolution. And the bible limits the amount of change that can happen. Cannots cannot mate with dogs, pigs with apes, etc. And that is exactly what we find on this planet.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        “…our universe is finely *tuned*, and because it is, it must have a *tuner*…” is a perfect example of being blinded by semantics. Words do not reality make.

      • seahawkfan76 says

        So how did it happen then? And if you say by chance or a just a fortunate accident that just put everything together perfectly, then I say you are the one that is blind.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        “I don’t care what tens of thousands of the most intelligent people that have ever lived have discovered over time using careful analysis and observation, this one Bronze Age book with many known omitted sections and historical rewrites and self contained contradictions is correct”! LMFAO!!

      • seahawkfan76 says

        Here is a per5fect example of someone who probably has never even opened a bible, but is a very good “parrot”. There are no contradictions in the bible, none. You may want to look up the meaning of contradiction, because you won’t find any. Non believers will cherry pick one verse and insist it is a contradiction, without knowing the whole context of the verse. These omitted sections you are talking about are not related to the authors of the bible, and not inspired by God, but made up by humans and of course people jump on that and again insist parts were left out, just not true, but you are a very good “parrot”.

      • DrakTheDrake says

        Your definition of “scientific theory” is also flawed. A “theory” in science is not some kind of “law that hasn’t been proven,” it is a model that is supported by evidence. Scientific laws and scientific theories really have nothing to do with each other. Just read the first few paragraphs of the wikipedia entry for a good explanation:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_theory

        Also, to say that “nothing in science is proven” is basically redundant. The most fundamental aspect of science is that it is subject to change as new evidence presents itself. But there are some things in science with so much supporting evidence that it’s essentially a waste of time to look for alternatives.

        To paraphrase Einstein: “My theories can never be proven right, but a single experiment can prove them wrong.” And that is the fundamental difference between science and religion. Your ideas can never be proven or disproven because there is no evidence to back them up, just wishful thinking and poetic ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it means that there’s no point to bring up Dog in a discussion of science. The concept is irrelevant.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        So you believe in magical superbeings… That’s nice.

    • Member
      Jeffrey Boerst says

      It’s funny how little non-scientifically minded idiots know about science, yet they make their statements about it sound like they know more than people that have spent their lives adding to a cumulative reservoir of knowledge that time and again tests out to be accurate. You go, “Sea Hawk Fan”…. LMAO!

      • seahawkfan76 says

        First of all, my post clearly states this is coming from “Scientists”. Second of all , I can say the same thing about non believers trying to tell Christians what the bible says and does not say, and how wrong we are. Nothing I said is not scientifically accurate, but opinions may differ. And scientists are constantly changing their theory’s to justify their stance. Yes I know that sometimes that’s how we learn and get more information, but there have been times when they faked evidence in the field and falsified reports. The bible however has never changed, its been the same for 1500+ years, and will always be the same. Like I stated earlier, the science foreknowledge in the bible is amazingly accurate, even though it is not a science textbook. But when it does touch on science it is 100% accurate.

  2. orionmgomg says

    Let me be the first to say, for a Celestial Object to move faster than the speed of light is possible due to the extreme magnetic fields involved

    Consider the magnetic field around Sagittarius A, and consider the magnetic field around the “Star” or Celestial Object known as S2 – both of their combined magnetic fields are so strong that the cause speed within this environment (from our perspective) would actually be “slow” – we are seeing – what we are seeing is a slow motion effect, though infact the real speed is much faster – as the event’s information leaves the region and travels towards us, and gets “lighter” it will seem to conform with General Relativity – except that part about it moving “faster than light”

    In reality, what I predict will occur, the Star S2 will probably disappear, will collapse into a “Black Hole” from our perspective – as it moves through space close to Sagittarius A, and as it gets past peak upswing, and decelerates away it will brighten and shine once more

    The argument then is, did it infact travel faster than the speed of light, with all of its Electromagnetic Energy in this Universe?

    I would theories that the answer to that question is: No

    As S2 gets too close and too fast, (magnetic field anomaly notwithstanding) it will get so heavy that the Electric Force will collapse within, while the Magnetic Force will remain within this “level plane” and S2 will be a “Black Hole” for the duration that it exceeds the Speed of Light-Contin

    • Member
      Aseem Chiplonkar says

      I think you misunderstood. It will accelerate to 2.5% of speed of light. In fact the article mentions that it will be around 30 million km per hour. As you know speed of light is around 1080 million km per hr.
      You also might want to retract your speculations about why it would move faster than speed of light.
      Nothing can move faster than speed of light within our observable universe, any kind of explanation is always mathematically flawed.

    • weeasle says

      Just to chime in on what Aseem said, Einsteins GR theory makes it clear that because the speed of light is constant at any frame of reference, to exceed speed of light would require exceeding all of the energy in the observable universe. Magnetic fields included (which are one side of light – the scientific term for light being electromagnetic energy (note the word magnetic is contained in the term)..
      Bafflingly (to those unfamiliar with Einsteins theories), If we are on a train traveling 60mph (.0167miles/sec), and shine a flashlight, that beam of light travels at 186 thousand miles/sec and not 186 miles/sec + .0167 miles/sec). So our speed on the train (our reference frame) doesnt influence the speed the light beam our flashlight emits… This has been measured and verified.. An explanation of frame of refrence and constant velocity of light in laymans terms..

      • weeasle says

        Please note above 186 miles/sec should read 186K miles/sec… and is a well rounded abbreviation of the precise speed of light in a vacuum.. And just to elucidate further, while the constant speed of light cannot be observably exceeded, the speed of light can be slowed in a denser medium..

        And lastly, a star being composed of mass and energy is bound by by the same constraints being that Energy is Accelerated(C2) Mass..

  3. Ignoramus says

    “However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation.” Interesting! What should that hard evidence look like? That would have made the article “complete”.

  4. msadesign says

    While the video is interesting it’s a bit confusing, too, as other stars are seen grazing the location identified as that of the black hole yet show no change in apparent motion. Perhaps those stars are in the foreground, but if so they are moving quite fast?

  5. forwardbias says

    Gravity is a weak force compared to the strong force or nuclear. The fact that a star can be whipped around shows how big this black hole is. Accelerating such a large body to 11,000,000MPH. If we could harness that energy, a trip to Mars would only take hours rather than months, though a trip to the nearest star besides our sun would still take around 200 years.

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