Astronomers have used the sharp vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to repeat a century-old test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The Hubble team measured the mass of a white dwarf, the burned-out remnant of a normal star, by seeing how much it deflects the light from a background star.
This observation represents the first time Hubble has witnessed this type of effect created by a star. The data provide a solid estimate of the white dwarf’s mass and yield insights into theories of the structure and composition of the burned-out star.
First proposed in 1915, Einstein’s general relativity theory describes how massive objects warp space, which we feel as gravity. The theory was experimentally verified four years later when a team led by British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured how much the sun’s gravity deflected the image of a background star as its light grazed the sun during a solar eclipse, an effect called gravitational microlensing.
Astronomers can use this effect to see magnified images of distant galaxies or, at closer range, to measure tiny shifts in a star’s apparent position on the sky. Researchers had to wait a century, however, to build telescopes powerful enough to detect this gravitational warping phenomenon caused by a star outside our solar system. The amount of deflection is so small only the sharpness of Hubble could measure it.
Hubble observed the nearby white dwarf star Stein 2051B as it passed in front of a background star. During the close alignment, the white dwarf’s gravity bent the light from the distant star, making it appear offset by about 2 milliarcseconds from its actual position. This deviation is so small that it is equivalent to observing an ant crawl across the surface of a quarter from 1,500 miles away.
Using the deflection measurement, the Hubble astronomers calculated that the white dwarf’s mass is roughly 68 percent of the sun’s mass. This result matches theoretical predictions.
The technique opens a window on a new method to determine a star’s mass. “This microlensing method is a very independent and direct way to determine the mass of a star,” explained lead researcher Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. “It’s like placing the star on a scale: the deflection is analogous to the movement of the needle on the scale.”
Sahu presented the findings on June 7, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.
The team’s result will appear in the journal Science today.