Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.

What is the Black Hole Information Paradox?

Have you heard that black holes destroy any information that goes into them? Why is this such a big problem for physics?

In my day, things were simple. Robot dogs had wheels and laser noses. School was uphill both ways. Unwanted children removed themselves from lawns, and we didn’t need those horrible electrified tentacle arms. The cut of my jib was completely beyond reproach. Nathan Fillion was the captain of the Serenity all day, every day. … And black holes were holes that were black. By that I mean black holes would compress matter and energy into an infinitely dense singularity, and didn’t create a seemingly insurmountable information paradox. Yep, those were the good ole’ days.

But those days are over. Now it’s all 50 shades of grey, with the laws of physics bending under other laws of physics. “Hashtag not my Christian”. What I’m talking about is the black hole information paradox.

First, let’s talk information. When physicists talk information, they’re on about the specific state of every single particle in the Universe: mass, position, spin, temperature, you name it. The fingerprint that uniquely identifies each one, and the probabilities for what they’re going to do in the Universe. You can change atoms, crush them together, but the quantum wave function that describes them must always be preserved.

Quantum physics allows you to run the whole Universe forwards and backwards, as long as you reverse everything in your math: charge, parity and time. Here’s the important part. The big brains tell us information must live on, no matter what. Think about it like energy. You can’t destroy energy, all you can do is transform it.

Now, the black hole recap. Naturally formed when the largest stars, those with more than 20 times the mass of the Sun, collapse violently and explode. Here the density of matter is so high, the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light. The fancy ones have a super-heated accretion disk of matter swirling around the black hole event horizon, where even light can be pulled into orbit.

Here, we get one of the strangest side effects from Relativity: time dilation. Imagine a clock falling towards a black hole, moving deeper into the gravity well. It would appear to slow as it got closer to the black hole, and eventually freeze at the edge of the event horizon. Photons from the clock would stretch out, and the color of the clock would redshift. Eventually, it fades away as the photons stretched out beyond what our eyes can detect.

If you could stare at the black hole for billions of years, you would see everything it ever collected, stuck to the outside like flypaper. You could point out the clock, the Titanic, the Ranger, and USS Cygnus, and theoretically, you could identify the quantum state of every single particle and photon that went into the black hole. Since they’re going to take an infinite length of time to disappear completely, everything’s fine.

Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA
Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA

Their information is preserved forever on the surface of the black hole. They’re all totally dead, but their information, their precious precious quantum information, is totally safe.

If you could unravel a black hole, you could get at all the quantum information describing everything the black hole ever consumed. And least, that’s how it was in the good old days.

But in 1975, Hawking dropped a bombshell. He realized black holes have a temperature, over vast periods of time, they would evaporate away until there was nothing left. releasing their mass and energy back into the Universe. Unsurprisingly known as Hawking Radiation.

But this… idea created a paradox. The information about what went into the black hole is preserved by time dilation, but with the mass itself of the black hole evaporating. Eventually, it will completely disappear, and then, where does our information go? That information which can’t be destroyed…?

This is strictly not cricket, and puzzled astronomers. They’ve been working for decades to resolve it. There’s a fun stack of options here:
Black holes don’t evaporate at all, and Hawking was wrong.
Information within the black hole somehow leaks back out while Hawking radiation is escaping.
The black hole holds it all in until the very end, and as the final two particles evaporate, all the information is suddenly released back into the Universe.
It all goes into the teeniest possible bits and nothing is lost OR The information is compressed into a microscopic space, which remains after the black hole itself has evaporated.

An artist's representation showing outflow from a supermassive black hole inside the middle of a galaxy.  Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
An artist’s representation showing outflow from a supermassive black hole inside the middle of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

And maybe, physicists will never figure it out. Hawking recently proposed a new idea to resolve the black hole information paradox. He has suggested that there’s a way that new Hawking radiation could be imprinted by the information of new matter falling into the black hole.

So, the information of everything falling in is preserved by the outgoing radiation, returning it to the Universe and resolving the paradox. This is a hunch, since Hawking radiation itself has never been detected. We are decades away from knowing if this is in the right direction, or even if there’s a way to resolve the paradox.

In situations like this that we’re reminded how little about the Universe we really understand. Some aspect of our understanding of this whole process is unclear, and it’ll take much more detective work and experimentation to get closer to the truth.

What information would like to be destroyed from the Universe forever? Tell us all your secrets in the comments below.

How Can Space Travel Faster Than The Speed Of Light?

Cosmologists are intellectual time travelers. Looking back over billions of years, these scientists are able to trace the evolution of our Universe in astonishing detail. 13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang occurred. Fractions of a second later, the fledgling Universe expanded exponentially during an incredibly brief period of time called inflation. Over the ensuing eons, our cosmos has grown to such an enormous size that we can no longer see the other side of it.

But how can this be? If light’s velocity marks a cosmic speed limit, how can there possibly be regions of spacetime whose photons are forever out of our reach? And even if there are, how do we know that they exist at all?

The Expanding Universe

Like everything else in physics, our Universe strives to exist in the lowest possible energy state possible. But around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang, inflationary cosmologists believe that the cosmos found itself resting instead at a “false vacuum energy” – a low-point that wasn’t really a low-point. Seeking the true nadir of vacuum energy, over a minute fraction of a moment, the Universe is thought to have ballooned by a factor of 1050.

Since that time, our Universe has continued to expand, but at a much slower pace. We see evidence of this expansion in the light from distant objects. As photons emitted by a star or galaxy propagate across the Universe, the stretching of space causes them to lose energy. Once the photons reach us, their wavelengths have been redshifted in accordance with the distance they have traveled.

Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Credit: Brews Ohare.
Two sources of redshift: Doppler and cosmological expansion; modeled after Koupelis & Kuhn. Bottom: Detectors catch the light that is emitted by a central star. This light is stretched, or redshifted, as space expands in between. Credit: Brews Ohare.

This is why cosmologists speak of redshift as a function of distance in both space and time. The light from these distant objects has been traveling for so long that, when we finally see it, we are seeing the objects as they were billions of years ago.

The Hubble Volume

Redshifted light allows us to see objects like galaxies as they existed in the distant past; but we cannot see all events that occurred in our Universe during its history. Because our cosmos is expanding, the light from some objects is simply too far away for us ever to see.

The physics of that boundary rely, in part, on a chunk of surrounding spacetime called the Hubble volume. Here on Earth, we define the Hubble volume by measuring something called the Hubble parameter (H0), a value that relates the apparent recession speed of distant objects to their redshift. It was first calculated in 1929, when Edwin Hubble discovered that faraway galaxies appeared to be moving away from us at a rate that was proportional to the redshift of their light.

Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble's law. Credit: Brews Ohare
Fit of redshift velocities to Hubble’s law. Credit: Brews Ohare

Dividing the speed of light by H0, we get the Hubble volume. This spherical bubble encloses a region where all objects move away from a central observer at speeds less than the speed of light. Correspondingly, all objects outside of the Hubble volume move away from the center faster than the speed of light.

Yes, “faster than the speed of light.” How is this possible?

The Magic of Relativity

The answer has to do with the difference between special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity requires what is called an “inertial reference frame” – more simply, a backdrop. According to this theory, the speed of light is the same when compared in all inertial reference frames. Whether an observer is sitting still on a park bench on planet Earth or zooming past Neptune in a futuristic high-velocity rocketship, the speed of light is always the same. A photon always travels away from the observer at 300,000,000 meters per second, and he or she will never catch up.

General relativity, however, describes the fabric of spacetime itself. In this theory, there is no inertial reference frame. Spacetime is not expanding with respect to anything outside of itself, so the the speed of light as a limit on its velocity doesn’t apply. Yes, galaxies outside of our Hubble sphere are receding from us faster than the speed of light. But the galaxies themselves aren’t breaking any cosmic speed limits. To an observer within one of those galaxies, nothing violates special relativity at all. It is the space in between us and those galaxies that is rapidly proliferating and stretching exponentially.

The Observable Universe

Now for the next bombshell: The Hubble volume is not the same thing as the observable Universe.

To understand this, consider that as the Universe gets older, distant light has more time to reach our detectors here on Earth. We can see objects that have accelerated beyond our current Hubble volume because the light we see today was emitted when they were within it.

Strictly speaking, our observable Universe coincides with something called the particle horizon. The particle horizon marks the distance to the farthest light that we can possibly see at this moment in time – photons that have had enough time to either remain within, or catch up to, our gently expanding Hubble sphere.

And just what is this distance? A little more than 46 billion light years in every direction – giving our observable Universe a diameter of approximately 93 billion light years, or more than 500 billion trillion miles.

The observable - or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.
The observable universe, more technically known as the particle horizon.

(A quick note: the particle horizon is not the same thing as the cosmological event horizon. The particle horizon encompasses all the events in the past that we can currently see. The cosmological event horizon, on the other hand, defines a distance within which a future observer will be able to see the then-ancient light our little corner of spacetime is emitting today.

In other words, the particle horizon deals with the distance to past objects whose ancient light that we can see today; the cosmological event horizon deals with the distance that our present-day light that will be able to travel as faraway regions of the Universe accelerate away from us.)

Dark Energy

Thanks to the expansion of the Universe, there are regions of the cosmos that we will never see, even if we could wait an infinite amount of time for their light to reach us. But what about those areas just beyond the reaches of our present-day Hubble volume? If that sphere is also expanding, will we ever be able to see those boundary objects?

This depends on which region is expanding faster – the Hubble volume or the parts of the Universe just outside of it. And the answer to that question depends on two things: 1) whether H0 is increasing or decreasing, and 2) whether the Universe is accelerating or decelerating. These two rates are intimately related, but they are not the same.

In fact, cosmologists believe that we are actually living at a time when His decreasing; but because of dark energy, the velocity of the Universe’s expansion is increasing.

That may sound counterintuitive, but as long as Hdecreases at a slower rate than that at which the Universe’s expansion velocity is increasing, the overall movement of galaxies away from us still occurs at an accelerated pace. And at this moment in time, cosmologists believe that the Universe’s expansion will outpace the more modest growth of the Hubble volume.

So even though our Hubble volume is expanding, the influence of dark energy appears to provide a hard limit to the ever-increasing observable Universe.

Our Earthly Limitations

cosmology tapestry

Cosmologists seem to have a good handle on deep questions like what our observable Universe will someday look like and how the expansion of the cosmos will change. But ultimately, scientists can only theorize the answers to questions about the future based on their present-day understanding of the Universe. Cosmological timescales are so unimaginably long that it is impossible to say much of anything concrete about how the Universe will behave in the future. Today’s models fit the current data remarkably well, but the truth is that none of us will live long enough to see whether the predictions truly match all of the outcomes.

Disappointing? Sure. But totally worth the effort to help our puny brains consider such mind-bloggling science – a reality that, as usual, is just plain stranger than fiction.

How Big is the Universe?

The Universe is big, but how big is it? That all depends on whether the Universe is finite or infinite. Even the word “big” is tough to get clear. Are we talking about the size of the Universe we can see, or the Universe’s actual size right now?

The Universe is big, but how big is it? And what the heck kind of question is that? Are elephants big? Trucks? Dinosaurs? Cheese? Is cheese big? How big is cheese? How big is big?

The word “big” is tough to get clear. Are we talking about the size of the Universe we can see, or the Universe’s actual size right now? This becomes even more complicated when we are trying to work under assumptions of either the Universe is finite or the Universe is infinite.

One difficulty with talking about the size, is that the Universe is expanding. Light takes time to travel from distant galaxies, and while that light travels, the Universe continues to expand. So our problem with talking about how big it is, is that there is no single meaning to distance when it comes to the universe. For this reason, astronomers usually don’t worry about the distance to galaxies at all, and instead focus on redshift, which is measured by z. The bigger the z, the more redshift, and the more distant the galaxy.

As an example, consider one of the most distant galaxies we’ve observed, which has a redshift of 7.5. Using this, we can determine distance by calculating how long the light has traveled to reach us. With a redshift of 7.5, that comes out to be about 13 billion years. You might think that means it’s 13 billion light years away, but 13 billion years ago the universe was smaller, so it was actually closer at the time the light left that galaxy. Using this, if you calculate that distance, it was only a short 3.4 billion light years away.

Now the galaxy is much farther than that. After the light left the galaxy, the galaxy continued to move away from us. It is now about 29 billion light years away. Which is definitely more than 13, and quite a bit more than its original 3.4.

Usually it is this big distance that people mean when they ask for the size of the universe. This is known as the co-moving distance. Of course, we can only see so far. So, how far can we see? The most distant light we are able to observe is from the cosmic microwave background, which has a redshift of about z = 1,000.

This means the co-moving distance of the cosmic background is about 46 billion light years. Sticking us at the center of a massive sphere, the currently observable universe has a diameter of about 92 billion light years. Even with this observed distance, we know that it extends much further than that. If what we could see was all there is, we would see galaxies tend to gravitate towards us, which we don’t observe.

Multiverse Theory
Artist concept of the multiverse. Credit: Florida State University

In fact we don’t see any kind of galaxy clumping to a particular point at all. So as far as we know the universe could extend forever. It could be even stranger than that. Despite some media controversy, if the BICEP2 detection of early inflation is correct, it is likely the Universe undergoes a type of inflation with the intimidating moniker of “eternal inflation”. If it is the case, our observable universe is merely one bubble within an endless sea of other bubble universes. This is otherwise referred to as… the multiverse.

So, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space”

What do you think? Does the Universe go on for ever? Tell us in the comments below. And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

What Is A Quasar?

I love it when scientists discover something unusual in nature. They have no idea what it is, and then over decades of research, evidence builds, and scientists grow to understand what’s going on.

My favorite example? Quasars.

Astronomers first knew they had a mystery on their hands in the 1960s when they turned the first radio telescopes to the sky.

They detected the radio waves streaming off the Sun, the Milky Way and a few stars, but they also turned up bizarre objects they couldn’t explain. These objects were small and incredibly bright.

They named them quasi-stellar-objects or “quasars”, and then began to argue about what might be causing them. The first was found to be moving away at more than a third the speed of light.

But was it really?

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
Maybe we were seeing the distortion of gravity from a black hole, or could it be the white hole end of a wormhole. And If it was that fast, then it was really, really far… 4 billion light years away. And it generating as much energy as an entire galaxy with a hundred billion stars.

What could do this?

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source.

Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

But what was that mechanism?

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation.

The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus.

An artist's impression of how quasars might be able to construct their own host galaxies. Image Credit: ESO/L. CalçadaWhen the jets are perpendicular to our view, we see a radio galaxy. If they’re at an angle, we see a quasar. And when we’re staring right down the barrel of the jet, that’s a blazar. It’s the same object, seen from three different perspectives.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again.

The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy.

We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

If you’d like more information on Quasars, check out NASA’s Discussion on Quasars, and here’s a link to NASA’s Ask an Astrophysicist Page about Quasars.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Quasars Listen here, Episode 98: Quasars.

Sources: UT-Knoxville, NASA, Wikipedia

How To Measure the Universe


Measuring distance doesn’t sound like a very challenging thing to do — just pick your standard unit of choice and corresponding tool calibrated to it, and see how the numbers add up. Use a meter stick, a tape measure, or perhaps take a drive, and you can get a fairly accurate answer. But in astronomy, where the distances are vast and there’s no way to take measurements in person, how do scientists know how far this is from that and what’s going where?

Luckily there are ways to figure such things out, and the methods that astronomers use are surprisingly familiar to things we experience every day.

[/caption]The video above is shared by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and shows how geometry, physics and things called “standard candles” (brilliant!) allow scientists to measure distances on cosmic scales.

Just in time for the upcoming transit of Venus, an event which also allows for some important measurements to be made of distances in our solar system, the video is part of a series of free presentations the Observatory is currently giving regarding our place in the Universe and how astronomers over the centuries have measured how oh-so-far it really is from here to there.

Video credits:
Design and direction: Richard Hogg
Animation: Robert Milne, Ross Philips, Kwok Fung Lam
Music and sound effects: George Demure
Narration and Astro-smarts: Dr. Olivia Johnson
Producer: Henry Holland

Most Distant Quasar Opens Window Into Early Universe

Quasar

[/caption]Astronomers have uncovered yet another clue in their quest to understand the Universe’s early life: the most distant quasar ever observed. At a redshift of 7.1, it is a relic from when the cosmos was just 770 million years old – just 5% of its age today.

Quasars are extremely old, outrageously luminous balls of radiation that were prevalent in the early Universe. Each is thought to have been fueled at its core by an incredibly powerful supermassive black hole. The most recent discovery (which carries the romantic name ULAS J1120+0641) is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First of all, its supermassive black hole weighs approximately two billion solar masses – an impressive feat of gravity so soon after the Big Bang. It is also incredibly bright, given its great distance. “Objects that lie at such large distance are almost impossible to find in visible-light surveys because their light is stretched by the expansion of the universe,” said Dr. Simon Dye of the University of Nottingham, a member of the team that discovered the object. “This means that by the time their light gets to Earth, most of it ends up in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.” Due to these effects, only about 100 visible quasars exist in the sky at redshifts higher than 7.

Up until recently, the most distant quasar observed was at a redshift of 6.4; but thanks to this discovery, astronomers can probe 100 million years further into the history of the Universe than ever before. Careful study of ULAS J1120+0641 and its properties will enable scientists to learn more about galaxy formation and supermassive black hole growth in early epochs. The research was published in the June 30 issue of Nature.

For further reading, see related paper by Chris Willot, Monster in the Early Universe

Source: EurekAlert

Gravitational Redshifts: Main Sequence vs. Giants

Pleiades

[/caption]

One of the consequences of Einsteins theories of relativity is that everything will be affected by gravitational potentials, regardless of their mass. The effect of this is observed in experiments demonstrating the potential for gravity to bend light. But a more subtle realization is that light escaping such a gravitational well must lose energy, and since energy for light is related to wavelength, this will cause the light to increase in wavelength through a process known as gravitational redshifting.

Since the amount of redshift is dependent on just how deeply inside a gravitational well a photon is when it starts its journey, predictions have shown that photons being emitted from the photosphere of a main sequence star should be more redshifted than those coming from puffed out giants. With resolution having reached the threshold to detect this difference, a new paper has attempted to observationally detect this difference between the two.

Historically, gravitational redshifts have been detected on even more dense objects such as white dwarfs. By examining the average amount of redshifts for white dwarfs against main sequence stars in clusters such as the Hyades and Pleiades, teams have reported finding gravitational redshifts on the order of 30-40 km/s (NOTE: the redshift is expressed in units as if it were a recessional Doppler velocity, although it’s not. It’s just expressed this way for convenience). Even larger observations have been made for neutron stars.

For stars like the Sun, the expected amount of redshift (if the photon were to escape to infinity) is small, a mere 0.636 km/s. But because Earth also lies in the Sun’s gravitational well the amount of redshift if the photon were to escape from the distance of our orbit would only be 0.633 km/s leaving a distance of only ~0.003 km/s, a change swamped by other sources.

Thus, if astronomers wish to study the effects of gravitational redshift on stars of more normal density, other sources will be required. Thus, the team behind the new paper, led by Luca Pasquini from the European Southern Observatory, compared the shift among stars of the middling density of main sequence stars against that of giants. To eliminate effects of varying Doppler velocities, the team chose to study clusters, which have consistent velocities as a whole, but random internal velocities of individual stars. To negate the latter of these, they averaged the results of numerous stars of each type.

The team expected to find a discrepancy of ~0.6 km/s, yet when their results were processed, no such difference was detected. The two populations both showed the recessional velocity of the cluster, centered on 33.75 km/s. So where was the predicted shift?

To explain this, the team turned to models of stars and determined that main sequence stars had a mechanism which could potentially offset the redshift with a blueshift. Namely, convection in the atmosphere of the stars would blueshift material. The team states that low mass stars made up the bulk of the survey due to their number and such stars are thought to undergo greater amounts of convection than most other types of stars. Yet, it is still somewhat suspect that this offset could so precisely counter the gravitational redshift.

Ultimately, the team concludes that, regardless of the effect, the oddities observed here point to a limitation in the methodology. Trying to tease out such small effects with such a diverse population of stars may simply not work. As such, they recommend future investigations target only specific sub-classes for comparison in order to limit such effects.

Einstein’s General Relativity Tested Again, Much More Stringently

Einstein and Relativity

[/caption]
This time it was the gravitational redshift part of General Relativity; and the stringency? An astonishing better-than-one-part-in-100-million!

How did Steven Chu (US Secretary of Energy, though this work was done while he was at the University of California Berkeley), Holger Müler (Berkeley), and Achim Peters (Humboldt University in Berlin) beat the previous best gravitational redshift test (in 1976, using two atomic clocks – one on the surface of the Earth and the other sent up to an altitude of 10,000 km in a rocket) by a staggering 10,000 times?

By exploited wave-particle duality and superposition within an atom interferometer!

Cesium atom interferometer test of gravitational redshift (Courtesy Nature)

About this figure: Schematic of how the atom interferometer operates. The trajectories of the two atoms are plotted as functions of time. The atoms are accelerating due to gravity and the oscillatory lines depict the phase accumulation of the matter waves. Arrows indicate the times of the three laser pulses. (Courtesy: Nature).

Gravitational redshift is an inevitable consequence of the equivalence principle that underlies general relativity. The equivalence principle states that the local effects of gravity are the same as those of being in an accelerated frame of reference. So the downward force felt by someone in a lift could be equally due to an upward acceleration of the lift or to gravity. Pulses of light sent upwards from a clock on the lift floor will be redshifted when the lift is accelerating upwards, meaning that this clock will appear to tick more slowly when its flashes are compared at the ceiling of the lift to another clock. Because there is no way to tell gravity and acceleration apart, the same will hold true in a gravitational field; in other words the greater the gravitational pull experienced by a clock, or the closer it is to a massive body, the more slowly it will tick.

Confirmation of this effect supports the idea that gravity is geometry – a manifestation of spacetime curvature – because the flow of time is no longer constant throughout the universe but varies according to the distribution of massive bodies. Exploring the idea of spacetime curvature is important when distinguishing between different theories of quantum gravity because there are some versions of string theory in which matter can respond to something other than the geometry of spacetime.

Gravitational redshift, however, as a manifestation of local position invariance (the idea that the outcome of any non-gravitational experiment is independent of where and when in the universe it is carried out) is the least well confirmed of the three types of experiment that support the equivalence principle. The other two – the universality of freefall and local Lorentz invariance – have been verified with precisions of 10-13 or better, whereas gravitational redshift had previously been confirmed only to a precision of 7×10-5.

In 1997 Peters used laser trapping techniques developed by Chu to capture cesium atoms and cool them to a few millionths of a degree K (in order to reduce their velocity as much as possible), and then used a vertical laser beam to impart an upward kick to the atoms in order to measure gravitational freefall.

Now, Chu and Müller have re-interpreted the results of that experiment to give a measurement of the gravitational redshift.

In the experiment each of the atoms was exposed to three laser pulses. The first pulse placed the atom into a superposition of two equally probable states – either leaving it alone to decelerate and then fall back down to Earth under gravity’s pull, or giving it an extra kick so that it reached a greater height before descending. A second pulse was then applied at just the right moment so as to push the atom in the second state back faster toward Earth, causing the two superposition states to meet on the way down. At this point the third pulse measured the interference between these two states brought about by the atom’s existence as a wave, the idea being that any difference in gravitational redshift as experienced by the two states existing at difference heights above the Earth’s surface would be manifest as a change in the relative phase of the two states.

The virtue of this approach is the extremely high frequency of a cesium atom’s de Broglie wave – some 3×1025Hz. Although during the 0.3 s of freefall the matter waves on the higher trajectory experienced an elapsed time of just 2×10-20s more than the waves on the lower trajectory did, the enormous frequency of their oscillation, combined with the ability to measure amplitude differences of just one part in 1000, meant that the researchers were able to confirm gravitational redshift to a precision of 7×10-9.

As Müller puts it, “If the time of freefall was extended to the age of the universe – 14 billion years – the time difference between the upper and lower routes would be a mere one thousandth of a second, and the accuracy of the measurement would be 60 ps, the time it takes for light to travel about a centimetre.”

Müller hopes to further improve the precision of the redshift measurements by increasing the distance between the two superposition states of the cesium atoms. The distance achieved in the current research was a mere 0.1 mm, but, he says, by increasing this to 1 m it should be possible to detect gravitational waves, predicted by general relativity but not yet directly observed.

Sources: Physics World; the paper is in the 18 February, 2010 issue of Nature