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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

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker
Updated 4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Janet Yellen co-opts Reaganomics phrase for new Davos speech

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a speech this week. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. needs to focus on increasing its productive potential, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told world leaders Friday, calling for what she terms "modern supply side economics."

Why it matters: She co-opted a phrase traditionally used by political conservatives to describe low-tax and deregulatory policies — and framed the Biden administration's initiatives as the best path forward to achieve greater national prosperity.

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