Image Credit: NASA

Scientists Just Figured Out How Black Holes Twist Space-Time

By Kelly Dickerson

Astronomers just solved a 30-year-old mystery about black holes, and it might give us a new way to test one of Einstein’s most important ideas.

Back in the 1980s, astronomers discovered that black holes in our galaxy are ablaze with flickering X-rays, according to the California Institute of Technology. The flickering would follow a set pattern, getting steadily faster over a few months until stopping altogether.

They called the phenomenon Quasi Periodic Oscillation, or QPO. Astronomers suspected QPO happened due to the twisting of space-time that Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of general theory of relativity.

“It is a bit like twisting a spoon in honey,” Adam Ingram, lead author on the new research, said in a statement. “Imagine that the honey is space and anything embedded in the honey will be ‘dragged’ around by the twisting spoon. In reality, this means that anything orbiting a spinning object will have its motion affected.”

Artist’s impression of an accretion disk. Source: NASA

Scientists didn’t have direct proof QPO came from this space-time warping… until now.

Ingram and his team used the NuSTAR telescope to look at the spiraling band of gas and dust around a black hole, called the accretion disk. Ingram noticed that X-rays coming from the accretion disk were influenced by the Doppler effect: what happens when waves travel around you. It’s why sound waves from an ambulance siren sound really high-pitched as the ambulance approaches you, and then suddenly drop in pitch once it passes you.

In this case, the Doppler effect means the X-rays spiraling away from us around the accretion disk were stretched out, making the light appear more red, and the X-rays spiraling toward us were scrunched up, making the light appear more blue. The stretching and scrunching create a flickering effect as X-rays travel around the black hole, spiraling closer its center.

Spiral animation Source: Giphy

The pattern lined up with Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

“We are directly measuring the motion of matter in a strong gravitational field near to a black hole,” Ingram said.

The technique will allow astronomers to map the matter in accretion disks around black holes, according to NASA. It will also give us a way to test Einstein’s theory as astronomers look at more black holes to see if they observe the same pattern.

Read more:
We Just Got an Unprecedented Look at a Black Hole Ripping Apart a Star
Scientists Just Found a New Type of Black Hole
Stephen Hawking Just Published a Mind-Bending Theory About Black Holes

Originally published at mic.com on August 1, 2016.

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