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Star hurtling through space near humongous black hole could prove Einstein's theory

The discovery offers scientists a unique chance within the decade to test Einstein's theory of relativity in an extreme environment.

Image

The orbits of stars within the central arcsecond of our galaxy. In the background, the central portion of a diffraction-limited image taken in 2012 is displayed. Image released October 4, 2012.

Andrea Ghez and research team at UCLA/data sets obtained with W. M. Keck Telescopes

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Astronomers have found a star that breaks speed records as it orbits the Milky Way's central black hole, covering 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) per second as it whips around the black hole in less than a dozen years.

The discovery offers scientists a unique chance within the decade to test Einstein's theory of relativity in an extreme environment.

The star is named S0-102. It's one of a class of "S-stars" that surround the center of the sun's home galaxy in a kind of spherical shell. It has an orbital period of 11.5 years, give or take 3 1/2 months, making it the shortest-period star ever found in the region. The previous record was set by S0-2, which has a 16-year period.

The presence of two short-period stars means astronomers can look at the precession (change in orientation) of their orbits over time and use that information to learn how much space has been curved by the immense gravity of the galaxy's central black hole, which weighs in at 4 million times the sun's mass.

Such tests have been done before. The most famous study looked at the movement of the planet Mercury around the sun. Astronomers of the 19th century noticed Mercury's orbit was precessing more than could be accounted for by Newton's theory of gravity. At first they proposed the presence of another planet inside Mercury's orbit, but in the early 20th centuryEinstein was able to use his theory of relativity to predict exactly how much "extra" precession should happen as a result of space being curved by the sun's gravity, forcing the planet into a different path.  [Photos: Black Holes of the Universe]

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