A space telescope scheduled for launch in 2007 will be sensitive enough to detect theoretical miniature black holes lurking within our solar system, scientists say.
By doing so, it could test an exotic five-dimensional theory of gravity that competes with Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. That is, of course, if the tiny black holes actually exist.
The idea, recently detailed online in the journal Physical Review D, is being proposed by Charles Keeton, a physicist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Arlie Petters of Duke University in North Carolina.
The Randall-Sundrum braneworld model, named after the scientists who created it, states that the visible universe is a membrane embedded within a larger universe, like a strand of seaweed floating in the ocean. Unlike the universe described by General Relativity-which has three dimensions of space and one of time-the braneworld universe contains an extra fourth dimension of space for a total of five dimensions.
If the braneworld theory is true, it would "upset the applecart," Petters said. "It would confirm that there is a fourth dimension to space, which would create a philosophical shift in our understanding of the natural world."
The braneworld theory predicts the existence of tiny black holes seeded throughout the universe, remnants of the Big Bang. Thousands of them should exist in our solar system. General Relativity, in contrast, predicts that such primordial black holes evaporated long ago.
The researchers predict that braneworld black holes are about the size of an atomic nucleus but have masses similar to that of a tiny asteroid.
Gamma ray ripples
Petters and Keeton say their theory is testable. The mini-black holes should warp the fabric of space-time differently from other types of black holes-thos of stellar-mass and the supermassive variety-due to their close association with the fifth dimension. Light, specifically gamma-rays, should be distorted differently when they whiz past braneworld black holes compared to conventional black holes.
"Our calculations show that braneworld black holes will give you a certain ripple in the gamma rays that would be different from general relativity," Petters told SPACE.com.
The researchers think that the Gamma-ray Large Space Telescope (GLAST) scheduled for launch in 2007 should be sensitive enough to detect the gamma ray distortions.
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This article is part of SPACE.com's weekly Mystery Monday series.
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Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined Space.com as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at Space.com, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.