Over the years, experimental tests time and time again proved general relativity, as a theory of gravity, to work - albeit only when confined to the walls of our solar system. The fabric of space-time holds all cosmic bodies, which in turn distort the fabric and create pockets or wells around which other bodies revolve. Even the Earth and the moon fall in the same way toward the sun. The equivalence principle combines a feather and a neutron star.
Published on July 4 in the journal Nature, this new study focused on another prediction of General Relativity known as the "Strong Equivalence Principle".
Einstein was sure that all objects fall in the same way in a gravitational field, irrespective of their own gravity.
Here on Earth, all objects will fall to the ground at a steady speed of 9.8 m/s. Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott even demonstrated it on the moon after dropping a hammer and feather at the same time and showing they both hit the lunar dirt at the same time, regardless of how big they are or what they are made of.
"Tests of this principle have a long heritage", says Clifford M. Will in a Nature article accompanying the paper.
The astronomers followed the neutron star for six years, tracking it via the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. This system contains a neutron star in a 1.6-day orbit with a white dwarf star, and the pair in a 327-day orbit with another white dwarf further away.
"This is a unique star system", says co-author Ryan Lynch of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. "That makes it a one-of-a-kind laboratory for putting Einstein's theories to the test". It's called the equivalence principle, and scientists just showed it holds firm using a distant triple-star system discovered in 2012. The GBT has spent more than 400 hours observing this system, taking data and calculating how each object moves in relation to the other.
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Now, nearly 80 years later, a study led by researchers from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands have proven that even extremely massive objects, such as superdense neutron stars, fall just like a feather. This particular neutron star is actually a pulsar which spins rapidly, 366 times per second and emits X-rays and radio waves.
The head of the study, Anne Archibald at the University of Amsterdam, said in a statement, "We can account for every single pulse of the neutron star since we began our observations". "We can tell its location to within a few hundred meters".
Because they do not have a gravitational force as strong as neutron stars, the researchers found it intriguing to find two white dwarfs in the same vicinity as a neutron star.
If alternatives to Einstein's theory of gravity were correct, the neutron star fell differently from the white dwarf and the pulses would arrive at a different time than expected.
"If there is a difference, it is no more than three parts in a million", notes study co-author Nina Gusinskaia, also from the University of Amsterdam.
Researchers said the result is ten times more precise that the previous best test of gravity, making the evidence for Einstein's Strong Equivalence Principle that much stronger.
As we get more data from the Gaia mission and other projects, we should be able to put our understanding of the physics of the Universe under even closer scrutiny in the future - and it would be hard to bet against Einstein. According to alternative theories of gravity, this class of objects does not comply with the equivalence principle.