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Star could provide cosmic insights

Oct. 4, 2012 at 6:46 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 4 (UPI) -- A star is orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy in the quickest orbit of any star near this black hole, 11 1/2 years, researchers say.

The star, known as SO-102, may help astronomers discover whether Albert Einstein was right in his fundamental prediction of how black holes like the one in the center of the Milky Way warp space and time, UCLA astronomers said.

Before this discovery astronomers knew of only one star with a very short orbit near the black hole, SO-2, whose orbit takes 16 years.

"I'm extremely pleased to find two stars that orbit our galaxy's supermassive black hole in much less than a human lifetime," physics and astronomy Professor Andrea Ghez said.

Most of the stars have orbits of 60 years or longer, she said.

"It is the tango of S0-102 and S0-2 that will reveal the true geometry of space and time near a black hole for the first time," Ghez said in a UCLA release. "This measurement cannot be done with one star alone."

Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that mass distorts space and time and not only slows down the flow of time but also stretches or shrinks distances.

"Now it's a whole new ballgame, in terms of the kinds of experiments we can do to understand how black holes grow over time, the role supermassive black holes play in the center of galaxies, and whether Einstein's theory of general relativity is valid near a black hole, where this theory has never been tested before," she said.

"It's exciting to now have a means to open up this window."

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