Hubble Space Telescope proves Einstein right by proving him wrong

8 Jun 2017

Mural of Albert Einstein. Image: Bokic Bojan/Shutterstock

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has gotten a major boost with a new Hubble Space Telescope discovery, albeit proving the genius wrong on one thing.

When Albert Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity just over 100 years ago, he had devised an astronomical test that he thought would prove its existence.

The only problem is that that test was considered so difficult at the time that he said “there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly”.

Future Human

Now, using the Hubble Space Telescope, Einstein has been proven wrong on that point, but, at the same time, his scientific theory has gotten some major support.

In a study published in Science, a team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was able to use the space telescope to prove that, whenever light from a distant star passes by an object between it and the observer, gravity acts like a magnifying lens, brightening and bending the distant starlight.

Called gravitational lensing, a star in the foreground passing exactly between us and a background star creates a perfect circle of light and is often known as an ‘Einstein ring’.

While this phenomenon has been spotted before, what makes this new research so significant is that it appears to be the first example of microlensing created by a star other than our sun.

Hubble diagram

This illustration reveals how the gravity of a white dwarf star warps space and bends the light of a distant star behind it. Image: NASA, ESA, and A Feild (STScI)

‘Einstein would be proud’

To make this discovery, Kailash C Sahu and his team developed a new tool capable of determining the mass of objects that are usually difficult to measure, in this case collapsed stellar remnants known as a white dwarf star.

Stein 2051B, as it is designated, was then found to be curving gravity around it, displacing its light. This allowed the team to calculate its mass at 68pc that of the sun.

This was no easy feat, as trying to track the alignment of two stars in the night sky is incredibly difficult.

With this discovery, it is hoped that the tool will help other astronomers determine the masses of distant stars.

“Einstein would be proud,” said Terry Oswalt, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“One of his key predictions has passed a very rigorous observational test.”

Mural of Albert Einstein. Image:  Bokic Bojan/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic