Astronomers Discover Star With the Shortest Orbital Period Around Milky Way Galaxy’s Central Black Hole (October 4, 2012)

TORONTO, ON (Tuesday, 2 October 2012) – A team from UCLA that includes an astronomer with the Dunlap Institute, University of Toronto, has discovered a star that orbits the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy in less time than any other known star.

Referred to as S0-102, the star circuits our galaxy’s centre in 11.5 years, or less time than Jupiter takes to orbit the Sun. According to the Dunlap’s Tuan Do, “Because of its proximity to the central black hole, S0-102 gives us an excellent opportunity to test Einstein’s General Relativity.”

The team’s findings will be published in the journal Science on Friday, 5 October 2012. They are the latest results from the 17-year effort of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, led by Prof. Andrea Ghez of the Department of Physics & Astronomy.

It was by studying the stars in the Milky Way Galaxy’s central region that Ghez and her team originally discovered the supermassive black hole in the heart of our galaxy. Known as Sgr A* (Sagittarius A-star), the prodigious object contains the mass of four million stars equal in mass to our Sun. “Having proved that black holes exist,” says Ghez, “our research today aims to understand their nature and how they warp space and time.”

There are thousands of stars within a few light-years of our galaxy’s centre. As Do, a co-author on the Science paper, describes it, “This region is the most extreme environment in the galaxy. It has the highest density of stars—equivalent to having over a million stars between the Sun and our next closest star, Alpha Centauri. The stars closest to Sgr A* are travelling at over 4000 kilometres per second. That’s 1% the speed of light.”

The previous stellar record holder for orbiting Sgr A* was a star called S0-2 with a galactic orbital period of 16 years. According to General Relativity, the elliptical orbits of objects like S0-2 and S0-102 should themselves “rotate”, creating a rosette-pattern over time. This motion is known as precession and is most easily observed in bodies orbiting close to massive objects.

But the mass of other stars near the galaxy’s centre creates a different type of precession which is hard to separate from precession caused by General Relativity. By studying the orbits of S0-02 and S0-102 together, the Galactic Center Group will be able to distinguish between the two precessions. And according to Ghez, “It is conceivable that we will be able to observe deviations from Einstein’s theory in regions where S0-102 and other short period stars reside.”

S0-102 was discovered using images taken with the twin 10-metre telescopes of the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. These included observations with the Keck II telescope using adaptive optics and laser guide-star technology which corrects for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. With a resolution greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, the observations allow Ghez, Do and the group to resolve individual stars in the crowded region.

Do joined the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto, in August 2012, where he will continue to work with the UCLA group in preparation for observations of the galactic centre using the next generation Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Scheduled to begin operation later this decade, the TMT will not only substantially improve the measurements for S0-102; the group fully expects that it will also lead to the discovery of many, even shorter-period stars.


Dr. Tuan Do
Dunlap Fellow
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
p: 416-78-2215

Chris Sasaki
PIO, Communications and New Media Specialist
Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics
University of Toronto
p: 416-978-6613

Prof. Andrea Ghez
Principal Investigator
UCLA Galactic Center Group
Department of Physics & Astronomy
p: 310-206-0420

About the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto: The Dunlap Institute was established in May 2008 at the University of Toronto, creating a dynamic centre for astronomical research along with the university’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. The Dunlap Institute continues the legacy of the David Dunlap Observatory of developing innovative astronomical instrumentation, including instrumentation for the largest telescopes in the world. The research of its faculty and Dunlap Fellows spans the depths of the Universe, from the discovery of exoplanets around nearby stars, to star formation, black holes, dark matter, high-redshift galaxies, and the Big Bang. The institute also continues a strong commitment to developing the next generation of astronomers through education programs, and fostering public engagement in science through a wealth of outreach activities.

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