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Gravity Probe B

Testing Einstein's Universe

Special & General Relativity Questions and Answers

What is a vortex, and how does it work?

I don't know what this is. I know that science fiction stories like to talk of circulating maelstroms in space, but the closest match I can make between this idea and something real is the so-called accretion disk that can form around white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. If these objects are in binary star systems, they can intercept gas being ejected into space by their normal companion star ( usually a red giant star). The material has angular momentum, and gets trapped into a circulating disk of gas surrounding the neutron star or black hole. The material experiences friction and slowly spirals into the neutron star or black hole in what, for a better descriptive term, you might call a vortex, although astronomers never use that term; it is too superficial and doesn't convey much information.

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All answers are provided by Dr. Sten Odenwald (Raytheon STX) for the NASA Astronomy Cafe, part of the NASA Education and Public Outreach program.