Astronomers Witness the Dragging of Space-Time

The white dwarf-pulsar binary system PSR J1141-6545 discovered by the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope. (Image: Mark Myers, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav))
The white dwarf-pulsar binary system PSR J1141-6545 discovered by the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope. (Image: Mark Myers, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav))

After almost 20 years of patient monitoring, an international team of astronomers has witnessed the very fabric of space-time being dragged around a rapidly-rotating exotic star known as a white dwarf. The effect is a consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and the result was published in the journal Science.

When massive stars are born, they often are created in pairs, and at the end of their lives, they leave behind super-dense cores in the form of a white dwarf, neutron star or black hole. Neutron stars emit regular clock-like pulses that enable astronomers to map their orbits to outstanding precision. Dr. Ramesh Bhat from the Curtin University node of ICRAR, who has been involved in this study since 2005, said:

Swinburne University’s Professor Matthew Bailes and his team began to map the orbit in a series of intensive observing campaigns at CSIRO’s Parkes 64-meter radio telescope. Over the course of two decades, it became evident that the stars’ motion required Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to explain their complex dance.

Artist's depiction of a rapidly spinning neutron star and a white dwarf dragging the fabric of space time around its orbit. (Image: Mark Myers, OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence)

Artist’s depiction of a rapidly spinning neutron star and a white dwarf dragging the fabric of space-time around its orbit. (Image: Mark Myers, OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence)

Lead author Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy’s (MPIfR) Vivek Venkatraman Krishnan (VVK) took up the challenge of untangling the many intertwined Einsteinian effects at play in this naturally-occurring gravitational laboratory during his Ph.D. at Swinburne University of Technology: VVK explained:

MPIfR’s Dr. Paulo Freire postulated that this might be, at least in part, due to the so-called “frame-dragging” that all matter is subject to in the presence of a rotating body as predicted by the Austrian mathematicians Lense and Thirring in 1918. Danish theorist Professor Thomas Tauris (Aarhus University) simulations helped quantify the magnitude of the white dwarf’s spin. Tauris said:

MPIfR’s Dr Norbert Wex explained:

ICRAR’s Dr. Ramesh Bhat says that the effect makes the pulsar’s orbit tumble in space, adding:

The result is especially pleasing for team members Bailes, Willem van Straten (Auckland University of Tech) and Ramesh Bhat (ICRAR-Curtin) who have been trekking out to the Parkes 64-meter telescope since the early 2000s, patiently mapping the orbit with the ultimate aim of studying Einstein’s Universe. “This makes all the late nights and early mornings worthwhile,” said Bhat.

Provided by: The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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