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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1997 > Nov > Nov 6

First Observation of Space-Time Distortion by

From: NASANews@hq.nasa.gov
Date: Thu, 6 Nov 1997 12:38:59 -0500 (EST)
Fwd Date: Thu, 06 Nov 1997 21:15:28 -0500
Subject: First Observation of Space-Time Distortion by

Donald Savage
Headquarters, Washington, DC                   November 6, 1997
(Phone:  202/358-1547)

Bill Steigerwald
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
(Phone:  301/286-5017)

RELEASE:  97-258

FIRST OBSERVATION OF SPACE-TIME DISTORTION BY BLACK HOLES

       Astronomers using NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer
(RXTE) spacecraft reported today that they have observed a black
hole that is literally dragging space and time around itself as
it rotates.  This bizarre effect, called "frame dragging," is the
first evidence to support a prediction made in 1918 using
Einstein's theory of relativity.

       The phenomenon is distorting the orbit of hot, X-ray
emitting gas near the black hole, causing the X-rays to peak at
periods that match the frame-dragging predictions of general
relativity.  The research team, led by Dr. Wei Cui of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is announcing its results
in a press conference today during the American Astronomical
Society's High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) meeting in
Estes Park, CO.  Collaborators in the research include Dr. Wan
Chen of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, and
Dr. Shuang N. Zhang of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center,
Huntsville, AL.

       "If our interpretation is correct, it could demonstrate
the presence of frame dragging near spinning black holes," said
Cui. "This observation is unique because Einstein's theory has
never been tested in this way before."

       Black holes are very massive objects with gravitational
fields so intense that near them, nothing, not even light, can
escape their pull.  This effect shrouds the hole in darkness, and
its presence can only be inferred from its effects on nearby
matter.  Many of the known or suspected black holes are orbiting
a close "companion" star.  The black hole's gravity pulls matter
from the companion star, which forms a disk around the black hole
as it is drawn inward by the black hole's gravity, much like soap
suds swirling around a bathtub drain.  Gas in this disk gets
compressed and heated and emits radiation of various kinds,
especially X-rays.

       The research team used these X-ray emissions to determine
if frame dragging was present.  The team found that the X-ray
emissions were varying in intensity.  By analyzing this
variation, they found a pattern, or repetition, that was best
explained by a perturbation in the matter's orbit.  This
perturbation, called a precession, occurs when the orbit itself
shifts around the black hole.  This is evidence for frame
dragging because as the matter orbits the black hole, the
space-time that is being dragged around the black hole drags the
matter along with it.  This shifts the matter's orbit with each
revolution.

       Einstein's Theory of General Relativity has been highly
successful at explaining how matter and light behaves in strong
gravitational fields, and has been successfully tested using a
wide variety of astrophysical observations.  The frame-dragging
effect was first predicted using general relativity by Austrian
physicists Joseph Lense and Hans Thirring in 1918.  Known as the
Lense-Thirring effect, it has not been definitively observed thus
far, so scientists will scrutinize the new reports very
carefully.

       The possible detection of frame dragging around another
type of very dense, quickly spinning objects, called neutron
stars, was accomplished very recently by Italian astronomers,
whose work led Dr. Cui's team to seek the effect near black
holes. The Italians, Drs. Luigi Stella of the Astronomical
Observatory of Rome, and Mario Vietri of the Third University
of Rome, will report their findings at the November 6
conference in Estes Park.

       These observations also were made using the RXTE, which
is available for use by astronomers throughout the world.

       "This is exciting work that needs further confirmation, as
for any seemingly major advance in science," said Dr. Alan
Bunner, Director of the Structure and Evolution of the Universe
Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.

       The RXTE spacecraft is a 6,700 pound observatory placed
into orbit by NASA in December 1995.  Its mission is to make
astronomical observations from high-energy light in the X-ray
range, which is emitted by powerful events in the universe.
These events are often associated with massive, compact objects
such as black holes and neutron stars.

                         - end -

NOTE TO EDITORS:  Computer animation and background video to
illustrate this story is available and will be broadcast on NASA
TV Videofile Nov. 6.



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