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Thursday, November 13, 1997 Published at 17:13 GMT


Warp speed five, Mr Einstein!

Getting space all twisted up

Astronomers have confirmed that Einstein's predictions of space and time warps are correct. The effect is present everywhere in space, but can only be observed the vicinity of fast-rotating objects.

The effect, sometimes called frame dragging, was predicted 80 years ago, but only now has it been possible to prove it. In order to do so, scientists looked at some of the heaviest objects in our Galaxy, using the newest satellite equipment.

Einstein's theories predicted many bizarre effects: the stretching of space by gravity; the slowing of time at high speeds; the bending of light beams. These phenomena only happen when gravity gets very strong - for example close to the Sun.

But for the frame-dragging effect, the Sun is just too small a star.

To observe the warping of time and space, astronomers have had to look at neutron stars and black holes - superdense objects that have collapsed under their own weight. These objects are also spinning at phenomenal speeds - hundreds of times a second.

With these kinds of vital statistics, the astronomical objects can whip space and time up into a veritable tizzy. Lines through space get tugged around by the spinning objects and turned into a kind of vortex.

But the effect would still not have been visible if the neutron stars and black holes were not also swallowing huge amounts of matter from the surrounding space.

As the matter rains down onto them in spiral orbits, it accelerates to speeds approaching the speed of light, and gets heated to temperatures of millions of degrees.

The X-ray glow from this material flickers very rapidly, and it is this oscillation that the astronomers say is due to frame dragging. The effect exists everywhere, even around the rotating Earth, but here it is so small, only the most sensitive instruments will ever detect it.

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