Einstein's idea helped scientists "weigh" a dead star for the first time

Astronomers have finally weighed an isolated white dwarf, or wrinkled shell of a dead star,

using a strange phenomenon predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity decades ago.

The data obtained confirm the predictionsastronomers on how massive white dwarfs can be. It will also help explain the strange, superdense matter that makes up these stellar remnants.

This figure shows how microlensing was used to measure the mass of a white dwarf. Photo: hubblesite.org

In a new study, astronomers usedHubble Space Telescope to measure the mass of a single white dwarf LAWD 37. Although astronomers have weighed white dwarfs in binary star systems, LAWD 37 was the first white dwarf to be measured in isolation.

Hubble measures the deflection of starlight by an object in the foreground (artist's illustration). Photo: hubblesite.org

To this end, a research team led byUC Santa Cruz astronomer Peter McGill used the distortion of space-time by gravity. As LAWD 37 passed in front of a distant bright star, its light refracted around the white dwarf in a gravitational microlensing process. This effect was predicted by Albert Einstein. When LAWD 37 distorted the light of a star, the star seemed to shift slightly in the sky, and Hubble recorded this event with incredible accuracy.

Drawing showing the path of the white dwarf LAWD 37across the sky as it passed in front of a distant star and distorted its light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Peter McGill (UC Santa Cruz, IoA), Kailash Sahu (STScI); Image Processing: Joseph De Pasquale (STScI)

LAWD 37 is only 15 light years away.Earth, so it has been studied for many years. As part of a new study, astronomers used data from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission to predict when a white dwarf will pass in front of a distant star. Based on the slight movement of a distant star in the sky, scientists have calculated that LAWD 37 is about 56% more massive than the Sun. This is consistent with existing models and forecasts.

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