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Hint of Relativity Effects in Stars Orbiting Supermassive Black Hole at Centre of Galaxy

This artist’s impression shows the orbits of three of the stars very close to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Analysis of data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes suggests that the orbits of these stars may show the subtle effects predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There are hints that the orbit of the star called S2 is deviating slightly from the path calculated using classical physics.. The position of the supermassive black hole is marked with a white circle with a blue halo. [Larger images]

A new analysis of data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes suggests that the orbits of stars around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way may show the subtle effects predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There are hints that the orbit of the star S2 is deviating slightly from the path calculated using classical physics. This tantalising result is a prelude to much more precise measurements and tests of relativity that will be made using the GRAVITY instrument as star S2 passes very close to the black hole in 2018.

At the centre of the Milky Way, 26 000 light-years from Earth, lies the closest supermassive black hole, which has a mass four million times that of the Sun. This monster is surrounded by a small group of stars orbiting at high speed in the black hole’s very strong gravitational field. It is a perfect environment in which to test gravitational physics, and particularly Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

A team of German and Czech astronomers have now applied new analysis techniques to the very rich set of existing observations of the stars orbiting the black hole, accumulated using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and others over the last twenty years [1]. They compare the measured star orbits to predictions made using classical Newtonian gravity as well as predictions from general relativity.

This artist’s impression shows part of the orbit of one of the stars very close to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Analysis of data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes suggests that the orbits of these stars may show the subtle effects predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There are hints that the orbit of this star, called S2, is deviating slightly from the path calculated using classical physics. This close-up of the orbit of star S2 shows how the path of the star is slightly different when it passed the same part of its orbit for the second time, 15 years later, due to the effects of general relativity. [Larger images.]

The team found suggestions of a small change in the motion of one of the stars, known as S2, that is consistent with the predictions of general relativity [2]. The change due to relativistic effects amounts to only a few percent in the shape of the orbit, as well as only about one sixth of a degree in the orientation of the orbit [3]. If confirmed, this would be the first time that a measurement of the strength of the general relativistic effects has been achieved for stars orbiting a supermassive black hole.

This artist’s impression video shows the orbits of three of the stars very close to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Analysis of data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and other telescopes suggests that the orbits of these stars show the subtle effects predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. There are hints that the orbit of the star called S2 is deviating slightly from the path calculated using classical physics.

The end of this sequence highlights the tiny change in the orbit due to the relativistic effects. The position of the black hole is marked with a red cross. Credit: ESO/M. Parsa/L. Calçada

Marzieh Parsa, PhD student at the University of Cologne, Germany and lead author of the paper, is delighted:

“The Galactic Centre really is the best laboratory to study the motion of stars in a relativistic environment. I was amazed how well we could apply the methods we developed with simulated stars to the high-precision data for the innermost high-velocity stars close to the supermassive black hole.”

The high accuracy of the positional measurements, made possible by the VLT’s near-infrared adaptive optics instruments, was essential for the study [4]. These were vital not only during the star’s close approach to the black hole, but particularly during the time when S2 was further away from the black hole. The latter data allowed an accurate determination of the shape of the orbit and how it is changing under the influence of relativity.

“During the course of our analysis we realised that to determine relativistic effects for S2 one definitely needs to know the full orbit to very high precision,”

comments Andreas Eckart, team leader at the University of Cologne.

The central parts of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, as observed in the near-infrared with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The position of the centre, which harbours the (invisible) black hole known as Sgr A*,with a mass 4 million times that of the Sun, is marked by the orange cross. The star S2 will make a close pass around the black hole in 2018 when it will be used as a unique probe of the strong gravity and act as a test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. [Larger images]

As well as more precise information about the orbit of the star S2, the new analysis also gives the mass of the black hole and its distance from Earth to a higher degree of accuracy [5].

Co-author Vladimir Karas from the Academy of Sciences in Prague, the Czech Republic, is excited about the future:

“It is very reassuring that S2 shows relativistic effects as expected on the basis of its proximity to the extreme mass concentration at the centre of the Milky Way. This opens up an avenue for more theory and experiments in this sector of science.”

This analysis is a prelude to an exciting period for observations of the Galactic Centre by astronomers around the world. During 2018 the star S2 will make a very close approach to the supermassive black hole. This time the GRAVITY instrument, developed by a large international consortium led by the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik in Garching, Germany [6], and installed on the VLT Interferometer [7], will be available to help measure the orbit much more precisely than is currently possible.  Not only is GRAVITY, which is already making high-precision measurements of the Galactic Centre, expected to reveal the general relativistic effects very clearly, but also it will allow astronomers to look for deviations from general relativity that might reveal new physics.

Notes

[1] Data from the near-infrared NACO camera now at VLT Unit Telescope 1 (Antu) and the near-infrared imaging spectrometer SINFONI at the Unit Telescope 4 (Yepun) were used for this study. Some additional published data obtained at the Keck Observatory were also used.

[2] S2 is a 15-solar-mass star on an elliptical orbit around the supermassive black hole. It has a period of about 15.6 years and gets as close as 17 light-hours to the black hole — or just 120 times the distance between the Sun and the Earth.

[3] A similar, but much smaller, effect is seen in the changing orbit of the planet Mercury in the Solar System. That measurement was one of the best early pieces of evidence in the late nineteenth century suggesting that Newton’s view of gravity was not the whole story and that a new approach and new insights were needed to understand gravity in the strong-field case. This ultimately led to Einstein publishing his general theory of relativity, based on curved spacetime, in 1915.

When the orbits of stars or planets are calculated using general relativity, rather than Newtonian gravity, they evolve differently. Predictions of the small changes to the shape and orientation of orbits with time are different in the two theories and can be compared to measurements to test the validity of general relativity.

[4] An adaptive optics system compensates for the image distortions produced by the turbulent atmosphere in real time and allows the telescope to be used at much angular resolution (image sharpness), in principle limited only by the mirror diameter and the wavelength of light used for the observations.

[5] The team finds a black hole mass of 4.2 × 106 times the mass of the Sun, and a distance from us of 8.2 kiloparsecs, corresponding to almost 27 000 light-years.

[6] The University of Cologne is part of the GRAVITY team (http://www.mpe.mpg.de/ir/gravity) and contributed the beam combiner spectrometers to the system.

[7] GRAVITY First Light was in early 2016 and it is already observing the Galactic Centre.