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It may be surprising to learn that a star orbiting the Milky Way Galaxy’s black hole has produced evidence for one of the most tested and implication-laden theories of science—general relativity—but that’s what’s happened. An international team of astronomers, equipped with sophisticated measuring instruments, has analyzed data they’ve captured from recent measurements of the star’s orbit and provided evidence buttressing the idea of a cosmic beginning and, hence, a causal agent. I’ll explain the findings in this post and will discuss the philosophical implications in next week’s entry.

Implications of a Beginning
Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity gave astronomers their first indication that the universe had a beginning, implying a cosmic Beginner. As I demonstrated in my first full-length book, The Fingerprint of God, a straightforward solution of the equations of general relativity demonstrated that the universe was expanding.1 Early twentieth century astronomers recognized that this cosmic expansion implied a cosmic beginning with consequent philosophical inferences.The most fundamental of these inferences was that a cosmic beginning implies that something or Someone caused it.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, astronomers and physicists deduced powerful space-time theorems from general relativity.3 These theorems establish that even space and time are created entities, implying that a Causal Agent beyond space and time created our universe. Hence, increasing evidence for the veracity, reliability, and generality (ubiquitous applicability) of general relativity (including weak, strong, and extremely strong gravitational field tests) also provides increasing evidence for the God of the Bible and for a biblical cosmic creation model.

Weak and Strong Gravitational Field Verifications of General Relativity
As I have documented in my book The Creator and the Cosmos, 4th edition, general relativity has passed every conceivable weak gravitational field test with flying colors.4 In two recent Today’s New Reason to Believe blogs I described how observations of gravitational waves emitted as a result of two neutron stars merging to produce a black hole and two black holes with masses equal to 29 and 36 times the Sun’s mass merging to make a black hole of mass 62 times the Sun’s mass established the validity of general relativity for strong gravitational fields. You can watch a computer animation of a neutron star merging event here.

Extremely Strong Gravitational Field Tests of General Relativity
However, until very recently, tests of general relativity in the vicinity of extremely strong gravitational fields had been lacking. The orbit of the star S0-2 (also known as S2) around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy provides such a test.

S-stars are nuclear burning stars with masses greater than the Sun that formed in star clusters near the galactic center, escaped from their clusters, and migrated into close orbits around our galaxy’s supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Figure 1 shows the S stars that most closely orbit the supermassive black hole.

Of all S stars, S0-2 has the closest orbit about Sgr A*, with an orbital period of only 16 years. Also, at 13.6 times the Sun’s mass it is the most massive of the S stars. Hence, it is by far the best star for astronomers to use in testing the validity of general relativity in an extremely strong gravitational field.

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Figure 1: S-stars in the Vicinity of Sagittarius A* (SgrA*), the Supermassive Black Hole at the Center of Our Galaxy
The cross just below and left of the star S2 marks the position of the Milky Way Galaxy’s supermassive black hole.
Image credit: M. Habibi et al., Astrophysical Journal 847, id. 120.

In May 2018, S0-2 reached the point of closest approach in its orbit about Sgr A* at a distance 120 times farther than Earth is from the Sun. At that time, its orbital velocity was 2.7% the speed of light or 18 million miles per hour (29 million kilometers per hour)! In March and September of 2018, S0-2 passed through its maximum and minimum velocities, respectively, along the line of sight with Earth. An international team of 29 astronomers observed these three velocity events with three different high precision spectroscopic instruments attached to three different telescopes (the W. M. Keck Telescope, the Gemini North Telescope, and the Subaru Telescope).All three instruments and all three telescopes were used for all three events. Their observations, combined with slightly less precise measurements of S0-2’s orbit from 1995–2017 (I reported on these previous measurements in a blog posted on April 2, 2018), yielded an unprecedented extremely strong gravitational field test of general relativity.

Groundbreaking Test Results
This test was unprecedented not only in its accuracy, but also in its elimination of systematic uncertainties (uncertainties due to instrumental or measuring technique offsets). The team in their current and previous sets of measurements used four different imaging telescopes and nine different spectroscopic instruments. Furthermore, they were able to determine maximum possible systematic uncertainties by observations of bright radial velocity (velocity along the line of sight with Earth) standard stars of the same spectral type as S0-2.

The team ascertained that the combination of the maximum systematic error and maximum random error in their radial velocity measurements was 20 kilometers per second. Since the range of radial velocities the team observed for S0-2 from March 2018 to September 2018 was 6,000 kilometers per second, the team produced an excellent test of general relativity.

Measurements resulting from the test established that the redshift parameter, γ = 0.88±0.17, which is consistent with general relativity (γ = 1.0) and excludes Newtonian models (γ = 0.0). That is, general relativity contrasted with Newtonian models has been affirmed with a statistical significance of five standard deviations. To put it another way, general relativity “is 43,000 times more likely than the Newtonian model in explaining the observations.”6

The team’s measurements also constrained two other important characteristics of the Milky Way Galaxy. First, they established that the Milky Way Galaxy’s supermassive black hole has a mass of 3.964±0.047±0.026 million times the Sun’s mass, where the 0.047 is the probable random error and 0.026 the calculated systematic error.Second, they determined that the distance from Earth to the galactic center is 7,946±50±32 parsecs (25,916±163±98 light-years), where the 50 parsecs is the probable error and the 32 parsecs is the calculated systematic error.8

The previous best measure of the mass of the Milky Way Galaxy’s supermassive black hole was 4.02±0.16 million solar masses.9 The previous best estimate of the distance to the galactic center based on an average of different measuring methods and a comparison of different statistical techniques was 8,122 parsecs (26,490 light-years).10

Although these technical details might seem superfluous for nonexperts, they show the rigor and scope of the work that excites researchers. Thanks to the team’s measurements and analysis of the orbit of S0-2 about our galaxy’s supermassive black hole, the validity and reliability of general relativity have now been established for the full range of gravitational field strengths. This comprehensive verification further strengthens the case for a cosmic beginning—and for a Causal Agent beyond space and time who created our universe.

I’ll explain in next week’s post how there might be possible loopholes for escaping the implications of a cosmic beginning and how the team’s extensive research addresses them. I also will explain how the team’s research combined with another new set of measurements largely resolved the recently claimed discrepancy in the cosmic expansion rate and removed consequent doubts in certain big bang creation models. Finally, I will address the implications of a slightly smaller supermassive black hole in our galaxy’s core.

Featured Image: Map of the Milky Way Galaxy
The black dot shows the location of our galaxy’s supermassive black hole. The yellow dot shows the location of the Sun.
Image credit: Caltech/JPL/R. Hurt

 

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Endnotes
  1. Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God, commemorative edition (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2010), 34–38, https://shop.reasons.org/product/271/fingerprint-of-god-commemorative-edition.
  2. Ross, The Fingerprint of God, 39–48.
  3. Stephen William Hawking and Roger Penrose, “The Singularities of Gravitational Collapse and Cosmology,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 314, Series A, no. 1519 (January 27, 1970): 529–48, doi:10.1098/rspa.1970.0021; Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions,” Physical Review Letters 90, no. 15 (April 18, 2003): id. 151031, doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.90.151301; Aron C. Wall, “The Generalized Second Law Implies a Quantum Singularity Theorem,” Classical and Quantum Gravity 30, no. 16 (August 2013): id. 165003, doi:10.1088/0264-9381/30/16/165003; Aron C. Wall, “The Generalized Second Law Implies a Quantum Singularity Theorem,” (December 6, 2016), https://arxiv.org/abs/1010.5513v5.
  4. Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 4th edition (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018), 114–20, https://shop.reasons.org/product/599/the-creator-and-the-cosmos-fourth-edition.
  5. Tuan Do et al., “Relativistic Redshift of the Star S0-2 Orbiting the Galactic Center Supermassive Black Hole,” Science 365, no. 6454 (August 16, 2019): 664–68, doi:10.1126/science.aav8137.
  6. Do et al., 667.
  7. Do et al., 667.
  8. Do et al., 667.
  9. A. Boehle et al., “An Improved Distance and Mass Estimate for Sgr A* from a Multistar Orbit Analysis,” Astrophysical Journal 830, no. 1 (October 10, 2016): id. 17, doi:10.3847/0004-637X/830/1/17.
  10. Zinovy Malkin, “The Current Best Estimate of the Galactocentric Distance of the Sun Based on Comparison of Different Statistical Techniques,” (February 28, 2012), https://arxiv.org/abs/1202.6128v1; “Galactic Center,” Wikipedia, last modified May 12, 2019, 01:09, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactic_Center.

 

About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.

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