At the center of our galaxy, roughly 26,000 light-years from Earth, is the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. The powerful gravity of this object and the dense cluster of stars around it provide astronomers with a unique environment for testing physics under the most extreme conditions. In particular, it offers them a chance to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (GR).
For example, in the past thirty years, astronomers have been observing a star in the vicinity of Sagittarius A* (S2) to see if its orbit conforms to what is predicted by General Relativity. Recent observations made with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have completed an observation campaign that confirmed that the star’s orbit is rosette-shaped, once again proving that Einstein theory was right on the money!
To put it simply, Dark Matter is not only believed to make up the bulk of the Universe’s mass but also acts as the scaffolding on which galaxies are built. But to find evidence of this mysterious, invisible mass, scientists are forced to rely on indirect methods similar to the ones used to study black holes. Essentially, they measure how the presence of Dark Matter affects stars and galaxies in its vicinity.
Black holes are one of the most awesome and mysterious forces in the Universe. Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, these points in spacetime are formed when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse at the end of their lives. Despite decades of study and observation, there is still much we don’t know about this phenomenon.
For example, scientists are still largely in the dark about how the matter that falls into orbit around a black hole and is gradually fed onto it (accretion disks) behave. Thanks to a recent study, where an international team of researchers conducted the most detailed simulations of a black hole to date, a number of theoretical predictions regarding accretion disks have finally been validated.
A little over a year ago, LIGO was taken offline so that upgrades could be made to its instruments, which would allow for detections to take place “weekly or even more often.” After completing the upgrades on April 1st, the observatory went back online and performed as expected, detecting two probable gravitational wave events in the space of two weeks.
Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that at the center of our galaxy, about 26,000 light-years from Earth, there exists a supermassive black hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. Measuring an estimated 44 million km (27.3 million mi) in diameter and weighing in at roughly 4 million Solar masses, this black hole is believed to have had a profound influence on the formation and evolution of our galaxy.
This discovery not only opened up an exciting new field of research, but has opened the door to many intriguing possibilities. One such possibility, according to a new study by a team of Russian scientists, is that gravitational waves could be used to transmit information. In much the same way as electromagnetic waves are used to communicate via antennas and satellites, the future of communications could be gravitationally-based.
In August of 2017, astronomers made another major breakthrough when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the merger of two neutron stars. Since that time, scientists at multiple facilities around the world have conducted follow-up observations to determine the aftermath this merger, as even to test various cosmological theories.
For instance, in the past, some scientists have suggested that the inconsistencies between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the nature of the Universe over large-scales could be explained by the presence of extra dimensions. However, according to a new study by a team of American astrophysicists, last year’s kilonova event effectively rules out this hypothesis.
In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.
The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.
Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.
The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.
As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:
“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”
When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.
The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:
“Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.”
Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.
“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”
In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.
As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:
“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”
And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:
When looking to study the most distant objects in the Universe, astronomers often rely on a technique known as Gravitational Lensing. Based on the principles of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this technique involves relying on a large distribution of matter (such as a galaxy cluster or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object, thereby making it appear brighter and larger.
This technique has allowed for the study of individual stars in distant galaxies. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers used a galaxy cluster to study the farthest individual star ever seen in the Universe. Although it normally to faint to observe, the presence of a foreground galaxy cluster allowed the team to study the star in order to test a theory about dark matter.
For the sake of their study, Prof. Kelly and his associates used the galaxy cluster known as MACS J1149+2223 as their lens. Located about 5 billion light-years from Earth, this galaxy cluster sits between the Solar System and the galaxy that contains Icarus. By combining Hubble’s resolution and sensitivity with the strength of this gravitational lens, the team was able to see and study Icarus, a blue giant.
Icarus, named after the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the Sun, has had a rather interesting history. At a distance of roughly 9 billion light-years from Earth, the star appears to us as it did when the Universe was just 4.4 billion years old. In April of 2016, the star temporarily brightened to 2,000 times its normal luminosity thanks to the gravitational amplification of a star in MACS J1149+2223.
As Prof. Kelly explained in a recent UCLA press release, this temporarily allowed Icarus to become visible for the first time to astronomers:
“You can see individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions.”
Kelly and a team of astronomers had been using Hubble and MACS J1149+2223 to magnify and monitor a supernova in the distant spiral galaxy at the time when they spotted the new point of light not far away. Given the position of the new source, they determined that it should be much more highly magnified than the supernova. What’s more, previous studies of this galaxy had not shown the light source, indicating that it was being lensed.
As Tommaso Treu, a professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College and a co-author of the study, indicated:
“The star is so compact that it acts as a pinhole and provides a very sharp beam of light. The beam shines through the foreground cluster of galaxies, acting as a cosmic magnifying glass… Finding more such events is very important to make progress in our understanding of the fundamental composition of the universe.
In this case, the star’s light provided a unique opportunity to test a theory about the invisible mass (aka. “dark matter”) that permeates the Universe. Basically, the team used the pinpoint light source provided by the background star to probe the intervening galaxy cluster and see if it contained huge numbers of primordial black holes, which are considered to be a potential candidate for dark matter.
These black holes are believed to have formed during the birth of the Universe and have masses tens of times larger than the Sun. However, the results of this test showed that light fluctuations from the background star, which had been monitored by Hubble for thirteen years, disfavor this theory. If dark matter were indeed made up of tiny black holes, the light coming from Icarus would have looked much different.
Since it was discovered in 2016 using the gravitational lensing method, Icarus has provided a new way for astronomers to observe and study individual stars in distant galaxies. In so doing, astronomers are able to get a rare and detailed look at individual stars in the early Universe and see how they (and not just galaxies and clusters) evolved over time.
When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in 2020, astronomers expect to get an even better look and learn so much more about this mysterious period in cosmic history.
The Multiverse Theory, which states that there may be multiple or even an infinite number of Universes, is a time-honored concept in cosmology and theoretical physics. While the term goes back to the late 19th century, the scientific basis of this theory arose from quantum physics and the study of cosmological forces like black holes, singularities, and problems arising out of the Big Bang Theory.
One of the most burning questions when it comes to this theory is whether or not life could exist in multiple Universes. If indeed the laws of physics change from one Universe to the next, what could this mean for life itself? According to a new series of studies by a team of international researchers, it is possible that life could be common throughout the Multiverse (if it actually exists).
Together, the research team sought to determine how the accelerated expansion of the cosmos could have effected the rate of star and galaxy formation in our Universe. This accelerate rate of expansion, which is an integral part of the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (Lambda-CDM) model of cosmology, arose out of problems posed by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.
As a consequence of Einstein’s field equations, physicist’s understood that the Universe would either be in a state of expansion or contraction since the Big Bang. In 1919, Einstein responded by proposing the “Cosmological Constant” (represented by Lambda), which was a force that “held back” the effects of gravity and thus ensured that the Universe was static and unchanging.
Shortly thereafter, Einstein retracted this proposal when Edwin Hubble revealed (based on redshift measurements of other galaxies) that the Universe was indeed in a state of expansion. Einstein apparently went as far as to declare the Cosmological Constant “the biggest blunder” of his career as a result. However, research into cosmological expansion during the late 1990s caused his theory to be reevaluated.
In short, ongoing studies of the large-scale Universe revealed that during the past 5 billion years, cosmic expansion has accelerated. As such, astronomers began to hypothesize the existence of a mysterious, invisible force that was driving this acceleration. Popularly known as “Dark Energy”, this force is also referred to as the Cosmological Constant (CC) since it is responsible for counter-effecting the effects of gravity.
Since that time, astrophysicists and cosmologists have sought to understand how Dark Energy could have effected cosmic evolution. This is an issue since our current cosmological models predict that there must be more Dark Energy in our Universe than has been observed. However, accounting for larger amounts of Dark Energy would cause such a rapid expansion that it would dilute matter before any stars, planets or life could form.
For the first study, Salcido and the team therefore sought to determine how the presence of more Dark Energy could effect the rate of star formation in our Universe. To do this, they conducted hydrodynamical simulations using the EAGLE (Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments) project – one of the most realistic simulations of the observed Universe.
Using these simulations, the team considered the effects that Dark Energy (at its observed value) would have on star formation over the past 13.8 billion years, and an additional 13.8 billion years into the future. From this, the team developed a simple analytic model that indicated that Dark Energy – despite the difference in the rate of cosmic expansion – would have a negligible impact on star formation in the Universe.
They further showed that the impact of Lambda only becomes significant when the Universe has already produced most of its stellar mass and only causes decreases in the total density of star formation by about 15%. As Salcido explained in a Durham University press release:
“For many physicists, the unexplained but seemingly special amount of dark energy in our Universe is a frustrating puzzle. Our simulations show that even if there was much more dark energy or even very little in the Universe then it would only have a minimal effect on star and planet formation, raising the prospect that life could exist throughout the Multiverse.”
For the second study, the team used the same simulation from the EAGLE collaboration to investigate the effect of varying degrees of the CC on the formation on galaxies and stars. This consisted of simulating Universes that had Lambda values ranging from 0 to 300 times the current value observed in our Universe.
However, since the Universe’s rate of star formation peaked at around 3.5 billion years before the onset of accelerating expansion (ca. 8.5 billion years ago and 5.3 billion years after the Big Bang), increases in the CC had only a small effect on the rate of star formation.
Taken together, these simulations indicated that in a Multiverse, where the laws of physics may differ widely, the effects of more dark energy cosmic accelerated expansion would not have a significant impact on the rates of star or galaxy formation. This, in turn, indicates that other Universes in the Multiverse would be just about as habitable as our own, at least in theory. As Dr. Barnes explained:
“The Multiverse was previously thought to explain the observed value of dark energy as a lottery – we have a lucky ticket and live in the Universe that forms beautiful galaxies which permit life as we know it. Our work shows that our ticket seems a little too lucky, so to speak. It’s more special than it needs to be for life. This is a problem for the Multiverse; a puzzle remains.”
However, the team’s studies also cast doubt on the ability of Multiverse Theory to explain the observed value of Dark Energy in our Universe. According to their research, if we do live in a Multiverse, we would be observing as much as 50 times more Dark Energy than what we are. Although their results do not rule out the possibility of the Multiverse, the tiny amount of Dark Energy we’ve observed would be better explained by the presence of a as-yet undiscovered law of nature.
As Professor Richard Bower, a member of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology and a co-author on the paper, explained:
“The formation of stars in a universe is a battle between the attraction of gravity, and the repulsion of dark energy. We have found in our simulations that Universes with much more dark energy than ours can happily form stars. So why such a paltry amount of dark energy in our Universe? I think we should be looking for a new law of physics to explain this strange property of our Universe, and the Multiverse theory does little to rescue physicists’ discomfort.”
These studies are timely since they come on the heels of Stephen Hawking’s final theory, which cast doubt on the existence of the Multiverse and proposed a finite and reasonably smooth Universe instead. Basically, all three studies indicate that the debate about whether or not we live in a Multiverse and the role of Dark Energy in cosmic evolution is far from over. But we can look forward to next-generation missions providing some helpful clues in the future.
What’s more, all of these missions are expected to be gathering their first light sometime in the 2020s. So stay tuned, because more information – with cosmological implications – will be arriving in just a few years time!