Scientists discover perfect place to test Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, except it's 4,200 light years away
Bizzare discovery will be used to test the theory.
The discovery of a very unique triple-star system 4,200 light years away could upset Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. Or it might not. Despite the sensational headlines, the discovery stands a better chance of affirming his work, just as all previous experiments have done.
Stars are basically balls of hydrogen gas in space which are so massive the hydrogen in their cores fuses into helium and releases heat and light in the process. This is what makes stars shine. Some stars are much larger than others, and their ages vary. As the hydrogen in a star's core is all fused into helium, the helium then begins to fuse, and heavier and heavier elements are forged until the star explodes under massive pressure that it can no longer counteract with fusion.
If the conditions are just right, the core of a star may collapse so much that it can form a pulsar. A pulsar is the dead core of a star that can be smaller than Earth in size, but so dense that a thimbleful of matter from it could weigh more than a mountain on Earth.
That small size and density cause the star to rotate rapidly, often hundreds of times per second. The pulsar beams out energy like a lighthouse beam, and can be spotted if that beam sweeps past Earth. So reliable is the spin that scientists use it for other observations. In fact, pulsars are even more precise than atomic clocks.
Enter the other two stars of the system, a pair of white dwarfs. A white dwarf star is a star like our sun, but even smaller. These three stars orbit around a common center of gravity, pretty much as expected. However, scientists are interested in taking precise measurements of every interaction within the system as a test of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.
General Relativity basically says that the mass of an object, as well as the motion and energy associated with it, can warp the fabric of the fourth-dimension, known as "spacetime."
Headlines of the recent day proclaimed this to be the big chance for scientists to debunk Einstein's Theory. It's true, this is their chance, although he odds are slim. So far, there is no indication that Einstein is somehow wrong.
However, the nature of the system will allow hyper-precise measurements of everything in it, so any deviation from the predictions will send scientists to the blackboard to make new calculations.
Although General Relativity is widely accepted by scientists, there are indications that the theory needs additional explanation. Studies of quantum mechanics as well as research involving black holes suggests the theory does break down at some level. Scientists need all the experimental data they can acquire to locate the breakage and develop an improvement upon the theory. Such a discovery would warrant a Nobel Prize and would make someone's career-although none have yet accomplished this feat.
This is the reason for the hype over the discovery of the three-star system with a pulsar in it. If scientists are going to find the flaw in the theory, a stellar system 4,200 light years away appears to be just the place to start.
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