Astronomers scanning the skies with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered the bending of one star’s light by another star’s gravity — and have even used that distortion to measure a star’s mass.
The findings, published in the journal Science, confirm a key tenet of Albert Einstein’s theories even as they offer a new tool with which to explore a fundamental property of stars.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity, presented in 1915, describes how gravity can distort the path of light, altering its trajectory. In 1919, the theorist was proved right when, during a solar eclipse, an expedition by Sir Arthur Eddington discovered that stars near the edge of the blocked sun’s disc were not where they were supposed to be. Their apparent position had moved because the sun’s gravity had distorted the path of their starlight, just as Einstein had predicted.
Since then, astronomers have used this as a powerful tool with which to observe distant phenomena. That’s because, when lined up just right, a massive object in the foreground can bend the light of a background light source and magnify it the way a lens does. This phenomenon, known as gravitational lensing, has allowed astronomers to observe distant galaxies that, without this effect, would be too faint to study.
But lensing events by large structures such as galaxies have been fuzzy at best, said Terry D. Oswalt, an astronomer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach campus, who was not involved in the study.
“They are lousy lenses because they’re not point sources,” Oswalt said. “They’re big and splotchy. They’ve got spiral arms and nuclei and sometimes companion galaxies, and sometimes there’s clusters of galaxies.”
But stars are point sources, not large and lumpy like galaxies. If you could catch a lensing event between two stars, it could offer a much more focused effect. You might even be able to capture an Einstein ring — a phenomenon in which a lensing object eclipses a background light source so perfectly that the background object is rendered as a luminous ring. (This has been documented for galaxies, but not for individual stars.)
For this paper, lead author Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and his colleagues set out to find a lensing event between two stars. This was a much more difficult feat, partly because the effect for single stars is so tiny compared with the size of galaxies. It’s also much rarer because it’s less likely to catch two stars overlapping than it is to find two galaxies doing so.
Sahu’s team used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for stars that were set to cross in front of background stars in the hopes of catching a stellar Einstein ring. They zeroed in on a white dwarf star called Stein 2051 B, which was set to pass in front of a more distant star. This was no easy task: The background star was 400 times dimmer than Stein 2051 B.
“It’s like measuring the motion of a firefly next to a lightbulb from 1,500 miles away,” Sahu said.
Einstein actually described such rings in a paper in 1936 but said that because of their rarity and because our instruments were not powerful enough, they weren’t likely to ever be seen.
“Of course, there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly,” he wrote in that paper in Science.
But as scientists observed Stein 2051 B, the background star seemed to jump, appearing to do a tiny somersault over the white dwarf passing in front of it.
Here’s what was happening: As Stein 2051 B began to line up with the background star, its gravity distorted the background star’s light, creating an Einstein ring. But because the two stars’ alignment was not perfect relative to Earth, that Einstein ring took the form of an ellipse, with one side brighter than the other.
As Stein 2051 B moved in front of and across the dimmer star, the elliptical Einstein ring shifted positions, with the brighter side appearing as a point that traced a tiny arc across the sky.
While Hubble is not strong enough to resolve that ellipse, the telescope does see the background star appear to shift positions.
“Even though you can’t see the ring itself, it’s lopsided, and so the position of the object appears to move,” said Oswalt, the Embry-Riddle astronomer. “It’s not actually moving — it’s [an] apparent motion caused by the bending of the light.”
What’s more, the fact that this series of Einstein rings is elliptical rather than a perfect circle actually allows scientists to calculate the mass of Stein 2051 B — a measurement that has dogged the astronomical community for years.
Stein 2051 B is actually part of a binary pair of stars that circle one another, and researchers have used the motion of the pair to calculate the white dwarf’s mass. According to this method, the star apparently was so heavy that it would have to have an iron core, which doesn’t make sense for a white dwarf. It also would mean this star was ancient, about as old as the universe itself, which scientists were pretty sure could not be right.
But now, thanks to this gravitational lensing event, scientists have been able to directly determine Stein 2051 B’s mass. They found that the white dwarf weighs in at 0.675 suns — much more in line with our understanding of white dwarf evolution.
“This is like putting the star on a scale and just seeing how the scale changes,” Sahu said of the lensing method. “The deflection [of light] is the movement of the scale, and that tells you the mass. So it’s a very direct way to determine its mass.”
White dwarfs are the remnants of dead stars; some 97% of the stars in our galaxy are destined to become one. Surprisingly little is known about their masses — only a handful have been measured, typically indirectly by using binary star pairs. This lensing method could change that.
“This is the debut of a new tool,” Oswalt said of the results. Understand the masses of stars is key to understanding their origins and development, he added.
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