Einstein’s theory of relativity, critical for GPS, seen in distant stars

What do Albert Einstein, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and a pair of stars 200,000 trillion miles from Earth have in common?

The answer is an effect from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity called the “gravitational redshift,” where light is shifted to redder colors because of gravity. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered the phenomenon in two stars orbiting each other in our galaxy about 29,000 light years (200,000 trillion miles) away from Earth. While these stars are very distant, gravitational redshifts have tangible impacts on modern life, as scientists and engineers must take them into account to enable accurate positions for GPS.

While scientists have found incontrovertible evidence of gravitational redshifts in our solar system, it has been challenging to observe them in more distant objects across space. The new Chandra results provide convincing evidence for gravitational redshift effects at play in a new cosmic setting.

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)

The intriguing system known as 4U 1916-053 contains two stars in a remarkably close orbit. One is the core of a star that has had its outer layers stripped away, leaving a star that is much denser than the Sun. The other is a neutron star, an even denser object created when a massive star collapses in a supernova explosion. The neutron star (grey) is shown in this artist’s impression at the center of a disk of hot gas pulled away from its companion (white star on left). Credit: Spectrum: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/N. Trueba et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Einstein’s theory of relativity, critical for GPS, seen in distant stars

What do Albert Einstein, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and a pair of stars 200,000 trillion miles from Earth have in common?

The answer is an effect from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity called the “gravitational redshift,” where light is shifted to redder colors because of gravity. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered the phenomenon in two stars orbiting each other in our galaxy about 29,000 light years (200,000 trillion miles) away from Earth. While these stars are very distant, gravitational redshifts have tangible impacts on modern life, as scientists and engineers must take them into account to enable accurate positions for GPS.

While scientists have found incontrovertible evidence of gravitational redshifts in our solar system, it has been challenging to observe them in more distant objects across space. The new Chandra results provide convincing evidence for gravitational redshift effects at play in a new cosmic setting.

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)

The intriguing system known as 4U 1916-053 contains two stars in a remarkably close orbit. One is the core of a star that has had its outer layers stripped away, leaving a star that is much denser than the Sun. The other is a neutron star, an even denser object created when a massive star collapses in a supernova explosion. The neutron star (grey) is shown in this artist’s impression at the center of a disk of hot gas pulled away from its companion (white star on left). Credit: Spectrum: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/N. Trueba et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss