A strange stellar pair nearly 7,000 light-years from Earth has provided physicists with a unique cosmic laboratory for studying the nature of gravity. The extremely strong gravity of a massive neutron star in orbit with a companion white dwarf star puts competing theories of gravity to a test more stringent than any available before.
Once again, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, published in 1915, comes out on top.
At some point, however, scientists expect Einstein’s model to be invalid under extreme conditions. General Relativity, for example, is incompatible with quantum theory. Physicists hope to find an alternate description of gravity that would eliminate that incompatibility.
A newly-discovered pulsar—a spinning neutron star with twice the mass of the Sun—and its white-dwarf companion, orbiting each other once every two and a half hours, has put gravitational theories to the most extreme test yet. Observations of the system, dubbed PSR J0348+0432, produced results consistent with the predictions of General Relativity.
The tightly-orbiting pair was discovered with the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and subsequently studied in visible light with the Apache Point telescope in New Mexico, the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands. Extensive radio observations with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico and the Effelsberg telescope in Germany yielded vital data on subtle changes in the pair’s orbit.