Two new and independent studies have put Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to the test like never before. These results, made using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, show Einstein’s theory is still the best game in town.
Each team of scientists took advantage of extensive Chandra observations of galaxy clusters, the largest objects in the Universe bound together by gravity. One result undercuts a rival gravity model to General Relativity, while the other shows that Einstein’s theory works over a vast range of times and distances across the cosmos.
The first finding significantly weakens a competitor to General Relativity known as “f(R) gravity.”
“If General Relativity were the heavyweight boxing champion, this other theory was hoping to be the upstart contender,” said Fabian Schmidt of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who led the study. “Our work shows that the chances of its upsetting the champ are very slim.”
In recent years, physicists have turned their attention to competing theories to General Relativity as a possible explanation for the accelerated expansion of the universe. Currently, the most popular explanation for the acceleration is the so-called cosmological constant, which can be understood as energy that exists in empty space. This energy is referred to as dark energy to emphasize that it cannot be directly detected.
In the f(R) theory, the cosmic acceleration comes not from an exotic form of energy but from a modification of the gravitational force. The modified force also affects the rate at which small enhancements of matter can grow over the eons to become massive clusters of galaxies, opening up the possibility of a sensitive test of the theory.
Schmidt and colleagues used mass estimates of 49 galaxy clusters in the local universe from Chandra observations, and compared them with theoretical model predictions and studies of supernovas, the cosmic microwave background, and the large-scale distribution of galaxies.
They found no evidence that gravity is different from General Relativity on scales larger than 130 million light years. This limit corresponds to a hundred-fold improvement on the bounds of the modified gravitational force’s range that can be set without using the cluster data. …