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NASA, ESA, and J. Lowenthal (Smith College)

Scientists have observed what Albert Einstein once said was impossible to see — distant starlight bending around a massive star outside our solar system. The discovery with the Hubble Space Telescope is the first direct detection of a key prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Go deeper: When Einstein was developing the general theory of relativity 100 years ago, he predicted that gravity would act like a magnifying lens when a distant star passed by a closer object, brightening and bending the starlight. But "there is no hope of observing this phenomenon directly" because stars are so far apart, he wrote in Science in 1936.

What's new: Scientists have been able to detect the bending of light around our own sun. (They first confirmed the effect, for instance, in a 1919 eclipse.) But, until now, they have not been able to observe the phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing directly.

In the new study, astronomers were able to pinpoint a moment in time when a white dwarf star and a second star were being observed in such a fashion that lensing could be seen for the first time. They were able to then determine the mass of the white dwarf star – which had only been possible in theory until now.

Why it matters: Because the majority of all stars are destined to become white dwarfs at some point, the ability to determine their mass (and, thus, their fate) gives scientists more information on the makeup of our galaxy and allows them to better understand the history and evolution of galaxies like our own.

The details: Einstein predicted a ray of light passing near a massive star like a white dwarf to be deflected by twice the amount that would ordinarily be expected based on what we know of gravity. He also posited that, if we were able to observe distant starlight from two stars in the foreground and background, the gravitational microlensing would result in a perfect circle of light – known as an "Einstein ring." Scientists didn't observe a perfect circle in the new study, but in searching through 5,000 stars they found two that were out of alignment – essentially resulting in an asymmetrical Einstein ring. That, in turn, allowed them to measure the mass of the white dwarf star.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC extends interval between COVID vaccine doses for exceptional cases

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty

Patients can space out the two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by up to six weeks if it’s "not feasible" to follow the shorter recommended window, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Driving the news: With the prospect of vaccine shortages and a low likelihood that supply will expand before April, the latest changes could provide a path to vaccinate more Americans — a top priority for President Biden.

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