In 1916, Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a journey that began in 1905 with his attempts to reconcile Newton’s own theories of gravitation with the laws of electromagnetism. Once complete, Einstein’s theory provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of the cosmos, where massive objects alter the curvature of spacetime, affecting everything around them.
What’s more, Einstein’s field equations predicted the existence of black holes, objects so massive that even light cannot escape their surfaces. GR also predicts that black holes will bend light in their vicinity, an effect that can be used by astronomers to observe more distant objects. Relying on this technique, an international team of scientists made an unprecedented feat by observing light caused by an X-ray flare that took place behind a black hole.
In 1915, Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity (GR), a revolutionary new hypothesis that described gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory remains the accepted description of gravitation in modern physics and predicts that massive objects (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) bend the very fabric of spacetime.
As result, massive objects (like galaxies and galaxy clusters) can act as a lens that will deflect and magnify light coming from more distant objects. This effect is known as “gravitational lensing,” and can result in all kinds of visual phenomena – not the least of which is known as an “Einstein Cross.” Using data from the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, a team of researchers announced the discovery of 12 new Einstein Crosses.
If you want a galaxy-spanning science fiction epic, you’re going to need faster than light travel. The alternative is taking decades or centuries to reach an alien star system, which isn’t nearly as much fun. So, you start with some wild scientific idea, add a bit of technobabble, and poof! Quam Celerrime ad Astra. Everything from wormholes to hyperspace has been used in sci-fi, but perhaps the best known FTL trope is warp drive.
As Einstein originally predicted with his General Theory of Relativity, gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. As a consequence, the passage of light changes as it encounters a gravitational field, which is how General Relativity was confirmed! For decades, astronomers have taken advantage of this to conduct Gravitational Lensing (GL) – where a distant source is focused and amplified by a massive object in the foreground.
In a recent study, two theoretical physicists argue that the Sun could be used in the same way to create a Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL). This powerful telescope, they argue, would provide enough light amplification to allow for Direct Imaging studies of nearby exoplanets. This could allow astronomers to determine if planets like Proxima b are potentially-habitable long before we send missions to study them.
General relativity is a profoundly complex mathematical theory, but its description of black holes is amazingly simple. A stable black hole can be described by just three properties: its mass, its electric charge, and its rotation or spin. Since black holes aren’t likely to have much charge, it really takes just two properties. If you know a black hole’s mass and spin, you know all there is to know about the black hole.
Unless Einstein is wrong, a black hole is defined by three properties: mass, spin, and electric charge. The charge of a black hole should be nearly zero since the matter captured by a black hole is electrically neutral. The mass of a black hole determines the size of its event horizon, and can be measured in several ways, from the brightness of the material around it to the orbital motion of nearby stars. The spin of a black hole is much more difficult to study.
Gravitational waves are produced by all moving masses, from the Earth’s wobble around the Sun to your motion as you go about your daily life. But at the moment, those gravitational waves are too small to be observed. Gravitational observatories such as LIGO and VIRGO can only see the strong gravitational waves produced by merging stellar-mass black holes.
Gravity is a strange thing. In our everyday lives, we think of it as a force. It pulls us to the Earth and holds planets in orbits around their stars. But gravity isn’t a force. It is a warping of space and time that bends the trajectory of objects. Throw a ball in deep space, and it moves in a straight line following Newton’s First Law of Motion. Throw the same ball near the Earth’s surface, and it follows a parabolic trajectory caused by Earth’s warping of spacetime around it.
Most of what we know about black holes is based upon indirect evidence. General relativity predicts the structure of a black hole and how matter moves around it, and computer simulations based on relativity are compared with what we observe, from the accretion disks that swirl around a black hole to the immense jets of material they cast off at relativistic speeds. Then in 2019, radio astronomers captured the first direct image of the supermassive black hole in M87. This allows us to test the limits of relativity in a new and exciting way.
In April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) released the first direct image of a black hole. It was a radio image of the supermassive black hole in the galaxy M87. Much of the image resulted from radio light gravitationally focused toward us, but there was also some light emitted by gas and dust near the black hole. By itself, the image is a somewhat unimpressive blurry ring, but the data behind the image tells a more detailed story.