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.
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.
In such a system, the orbits decay and gravitational waves are emitted, carrying energy from the system. By very precisely measuring the time of arrival of the pulsar’s radio pulses over a long period of time, astronomers can determine the rate of decay and the amount of gravitational radiation emitted. The large mass of the neutron star in PSR J0348+0432, the closeness of its orbit with its companion, and the fact that the companion white dwarf is compact but not another neutron star, all make the system an unprecedented opportunity for testing alternative theories of gravity.
Einstein’s predictions were found to hold up quite well, despite the extreme nature of the system. which is good news for researchers hoping to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves.
The original NRAO press release may be viewed here.