Imagine the Universe!
Imagine Home | Science | Advanced Science | 

X-ray Astronomy Puts Einstein to the Test

From tracing the way light bends around a neutron star to detecting the effects of a black hole tugging on space itself, X-ray astronomy is uniquely suited to testing and observing predictions of General Relativity, Albert Einstein's landmark 1915 theory of gravitation.

Thus far, Einstein's predictions are passing with flying colors. But will Einstein have the last word on gravity? X-ray astronomers hope to subject general relativity to even greater scrutiny by traveling (albeit virtually) to where gravity is at its extreme and the effects of general relativity most pronounced: the innermost regions of black holes and neutron stars. The payoff will be a greater understanding of the dominant force in the large-scale universe and, perhaps, a unified theory of the fundamental forces of nature -- the central goal of physics today.

In a mere forty years, the field of X-ray astronomy has witnessed nearly a billion-fold improvement in telescope sensitivity since that propitious day on June 18, 1962, when a sounding rocket discovered the first celestial X-ray source.

"We have come a long way, from the first inkling that a black hole - Cygnus X-1 - was in hand," said Jean Swank of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Project Scientist for NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer. "Now we can reasonably hope to map spacetime close to the invisible abyss of gravity."

General Relativity defines gravity as a result of mass distorting both space and time, a four-dimensional concept called spacetime. Nowhere is this more evident than in the regions around a black hole and neutron star, sources of extreme gravity.

X-ray telescopes are well suited to study these regions for two fundamental reasons: First, the power unleashed by matter crashing onto a neutron star or falling into a black hole shines predominantly in X rays, particularly in the regions closest to these objects, where gravity is at its strongest. Also, X rays can penetrate through the chaos of dust and gas surrounding black holes and neutron stars, a veil that blocks the passage of other forms of radiation.

Key predictions of General Relativity -- which the field of X-ray astronomy continues to verify with greater certainty as X-ray telescope technology continues to improve -- include: gravitational redshifting (gravity tugging at a photon, or light particle, as it tries to escape); frame-dragging (a spinning object twisting the actual fabric of space along with it); gravitational lensing (the path of light bent by gravity); and Einsteinian orbits (an innermost stable orbit).

For example, in 1995 astronomers using the Japanese-built ASCA X-ray satellite observed the first clear indication of gravitationally redshifted light around a black hole. ASCA detected a broad iron line, which is a spectral feature in the emission of hot iron atoms around a black hole revealing that strong gravity was stealing energy from the emitted light. This verified Einstein's prediction that black holes create a gravitational well, which a photon of light must climb out of on its journey towards Earth. Today, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the XMM-Newton satellite observe this phenomenon with greater precision.

Also, the Rossi Explorer has observed some of the more exotic predictions of General Relativity. First in 1998 and again with better accuracy in 2001, scientists observed the frame-dragging phenomenon. Einstein's equations predicted that a spinning object with strong gravity would take spacetime along for a spin with it. Scientists observed matter orbiting around a black hole like children running on a merry-go-round, its orbit hastened by the shifting of space.

General Relativity has many consequences for what happens to stars. It determines that neutron stars, made in supernovae from stars that have burnt all their nuclear fuel, cannot be more massive than about three solar masses. More massive collapsed remnants cannot be neutron stars. So far we have no contradiction.

General Relativity also has consequences for the environments of neutron stars and black holes. Material cannot orbit too closely. As opposed to Newtonian law, which permits matter to orbit at any radii, General Relativity predicts an innermost stable orbit. Again, so far there is no contradiction. In fact, the Rossi Explorer has determined that one certain black hole is spinning by virtue of an extremely tight, stable orbit -- an orbit predicted for a spinning black hole of a given mass. Also, scientists observe quasi-periodic oscillations, or X-ray flickering, that, so far, are best explained by the effects of General Relativity and the concept of an innermost stable orbit.

Yet as far as X-ray astronomy has come, scientists have been unable to test General Relativity completely. Such an undertaking could point the way to a better theory of gravity -- as Einstein's improved upon Newton's theory. The endeavor could also bridge General Relativity with Quantum Theory, an independent pillar of modern physics.

General Relativity describes the domain of the large-scale, the force of gravity. Quantum Theory, part of the Standard Model, describes the small-scale, the subatomic. The quantum forces are electromagnetic radiation (light, photons), strong forces (gluons holding together quarks), and weak forces (seen in radioactive decay). Gravity, as of yet, does not fit into the Standard Model; the so-called graviton, a particle of gravity, has not been found.

Yet gravity does not act alone. General Relativity defines this force as the result of mass and energy (united in E=mc2). Mass (matter, atoms) and radiation (photons) are controlled by Quantum Theory. Thus, the connection between the two theories is indeed logical and tantalizingly close at hand. Particle physicists refine Quantum Theory with the help of particle accelerators, smashing protons and electrons to reveal the matter and energy within. Astronomers must develop tests to better scrutinize gravity.

"We have laboratories to test General Relativity, that is, black holes and neutron stars," said Swank. "We see the next step as developing the instruments and tests to probe more deeply. This is the future of X-ray astronomy."

Future X-ray observatories -- some in development, others proposed for launch at the close of the next decade -- will move us closer to a black hole, step by step. Thus, they will allow us to test General Relativity.

The Constellation-X mission, proposed for a 2008 launch, will observe black holes accretion disks with such resolution that scientists can track the fate of plasma circling the black hole, noting changes in its "broad iron line" spectral emission. Currently, scientists can only calculate an average of all the X-ray flares around a black hole; the broad iron line is a composite of many flares. Constellation-X will be able to collect enough data from a single flare to test the math of General Relativity, measuring changes in the broadening of the iron line as a result of its changing distance to the black hole during the length of the flare.

A follow-up to the Rossi Explorer, which could piggyback on Constellation-X or later missions, could provide more precise timing of the X-ray flickering characteristics of neutron stars and black holes. This would reveal fainter features in the quasi-periodic oscillations, which may be a signature of General Relativity. MAXIM is an ambitious mission to image a black hole event horizon by 2020. With an image of the event horizon and accretion disk as a point of reference, scientists would be able to determine exactly from where X rays of varying energies arise. Knowing precise distances from the black hole to X rays of specific energies would allow for accurate tests of Einstein's math.

Other proposed missions, such as XEUS and Generation-X, could provide yet other unique tests of General Relativity. So, it will likely take far less than another forty years before we report fantastic new breakthroughs in our understanding of General Relativity, gravity and the laws of nature.

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Imagine Team
Acting Project Leader: Dr. Barbara Mattson
All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

DVD Table of Contents
Educator's Index