Probes and Tests of Strong-Field Gravity with Observations in the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Neutron stars and black holes are the astrophysical systems with the strongest gravitational fields in the universe. In this article, I review the prospect of probing with observations of such compact objects some of the most intriguing General Relativistic predictions in the strong-field regime: the absence of stable circular orbits near a compact object and the presence of event horizons around black-hole singularities. I discuss the need for a theoretical framework within which future experiments will provide detailed, quantitative tests of gravity theories. Finally, I summarize the constraints imposed by current observations of neutron stars on potential deviations from General Relativity.
Over the past 90 years, the basic ingredients of General Relativity have been tested in many different ways and in many different settings. From the solar eclipse expedition of 1917 to the modern observations of double neutron stars, General Relativity has passed all tests with flying colors Will06 . Yet, our inability to devise a renormalizable quantum gravity theory as well as the mathematical singularities found in many solutions of Einstein’s equations suggest that we should look harder for gravitational phenomena not described by General Relativity.
The search for such deviations has been very fruitful in the regime of very weak fields. Observations of high-redshift supernovae Perl97 , Riess98  and of the cosmic microwave background with WMAP Spergel03  have measured a non-zero cosmological constant (or a slowly rolling field that behaves as such at late times). This discovery can be incorporated within the framework of General Relativity, if interpreted simply as a constant in the Einstein–Hilbert action. It nevertheless brought to the surface a major problem in trying to connect gravity to basic ideas of quantum vacuum fluctuations Weinberg89 , Carroll01 .
In the strong-field regime, on the other hand, which is relevant for the evolution of the very early universe and for determining the properties of black holes and neutron stars, little progress has been made in testing the predictions of general relativity Stairs03 . There are two reasons that have been responsible for this lag. First, phenomena that occur in strong gravitational fields are complex and often explosive, making it very difficult to find observable properties that depend cleanly on the gravitational field and that allow for quantitative tests of gravity theories. Second, there exists no general theoretical framework within which to quantify deviations from general relativistic predictions in the strong-field regime.
During the current decade, technological advances and increased theoretical activity have led to developments that promise to make strong-field gravity tests a routine in the near future. The first generation of earth-based gravitational wave observatories (such as LIGO LIGO , GEO600 GEO , TAMA300 TAMA , and VIRGO VIRGO ) as well as the Beyond Einstein Missions (such as Constellation-X, LISA, and the Black Hole Imager beyondEins ) will offer an unprecedented look into the near fields of black holes and neutron stars. Moreover, recent ideas on quantum gravity Burgess04 , brane-world gravity Maartens04 , or other Lagrangian extensions of general relativity Woodard06 , Sotiriou08  will provide the means with which the experimental results will be interpreted.
In this article, I review the theoretical and experimental prospects of testing strong-field General Relativity with observations in the electromagnetic spectrum. In the first few sections, I discuss the motivation for performing such tests and then describe the astrophysical settings in which strong-field effects can be measured. In Section 5, I elaborate on the need for a theoretical framework within which strong-field gravity tests can be performed and in Section 6 I review the current quantitative tests of General Relativity in the strong-field regime that use neutron stars. Finally, in Section 7 I discuss the prospect of probing and testing strong gravitational fields with upcoming experiments and observatories.
2 The motivation for strong-field tests
Most physical scientists would agree that there is very little need to motivate testing one of the fundamental theories of physics in a regime that experiments have probed only marginally, so far. However, in the particular case of testing the strong-field predictions of General Relativity, there exist at least three arguments that provide additional strong support to such an endeavor. First, there is no fundamental reason to choose Einstein’s equations over other alternatives. Second, gravitational tests to date seldom probe strong gravitational fields. Finally, it is known that General Relativity breaks down at the strong-field regime. I will now elaborate on each of these arguments.
There is no fundamental reason to choose Einstein’s equations over other alternatives. – All theories of gravity, including Newton’s theory and General Relativity, have two distinct ingredients. The first describes how matter moves in the presence of a gravitational field. The second describes how the gravitational field is generated in the presence of matter. For Newtonian dynamics, the first ingredient is Newton’s second law together with the assertion that the gravitational and inertial masses of an object are the same; the second ingredient is Poisson’s equation. For General Relativity, the first ingredient arises from the equivalence principle, whereas the second is Einstein’s field equation.
The equivalence principle, in its various formulations, dictates the geometric aspect of the theory Will06 : it is impossible to tell the difference between a reference frame at rest and one free-falling in a gravitational field, by performing local, non-gravitational (for the Einstein Equivalence Principle) or even gravitational (for the Strong Equivalence Principle) experiments. Moreover, the equivalence principle encompasses the Lorentz symmetry, as well as our belief that there is no preferred frame and position anywhere in the spacetime. Because of its central importance in any gravity theory, there have been many attempts during the last century at testing the validity of the equivalence principle. These were performed mostly in the weak-field regime and have resulted in upper limits on possible violations of this principle that are as stringent as one part in Will06 .
Contrary to the case of the equivalence principle, there are no compelling arguments one can make that lead uniquely to Einstein’s field equation. In fact, Einstein reached the field equation, more or less, by reverse engineering (see the informative discussion in Misner73 , Pais82 ) and, soon afterwards, Hilbert constructed a Lagrangian action that leads to the same equation. The Einstein–Hilbert action is directly proportional to the Ricci scalar, ,
where , is the spacetime metric, is the speed of light, is the gravitational constant, and is the cosmological constant. While such a theory is entirely self-consistent at the classical level, it may represent only an approximation that is valid at the scales of curvature that are found in terrestrial, solar, and stellar-system tests.
Indeed, a self-consistent theory of gravity can also be constructed for any other action that obeys the following four simple requirements Misner73 . It has to: (i) reproduce the Minkowski spacetime in the absence of matter and of the cosmological constant, (ii) be constructed from only the Riemann curvature tensor and the metric, (iii) follow the symmetries and conservation laws of the stress-energy tensor of matter, and (iv) reproduce Poisson’s equation in the Newtonian limit. Of all the possibilities that meet these requirements, the field equations that are derived from the Einstein–Hilbert action are the only ones that are also linear in the Riemann tensor. Albeit simple and elegant, a more general classical action of the form Sotiriou08 
also obeys the same requirements. Indeed, the action (2) results in a field equation that allows for the Minkowski solution in the absence of matter, is constructed only from the Riemann tensor, obeys the usual symmetries and conservation laws Wald84 , and can be made to produce negligible corrections at the small curvatures probed by weak-field gravitational experiments. On the other hand, the predictions of the theory may be significantly different at the strong curvatures probed by gravitational tests involving compact objects.
The single, rank-2 tensor field (i.e., the metric) of the Einstein–Hilbert action may also not be adequate to describe completely the gravitational force (although, if additional fields are introduced, then the strong equivalence principle is violated, with important implications for the frame- and time- dependence of gravitational experiments). In fact, a variant of such theories with an additional scalar field, the Brans–Dicke theory Brans61 , has been the most widely used alternative to General Relativity to be tested against experiments. Today, scalar-tensor theories are among the prime candidates for explaining the acceleration of the universe at late times (the “dark energy” Peebles03 ). Depending on the coupling between the metric, the scalar field, and matter, the relative contribution of such additional fields may become significant only at the high curvatures found in early universe or in the vicinity of compact objects.
Although the above discussion has considered only the classical action of the gravitational field in a phenomenological manner, it is important to also note that corrections to the Einstein–Hilbert action occur naturally in quantum gravity theories and in string theory. For example, if we choose to interpret the metric as a quantum field, we can take Equation (1) as a quantum field-theoretic action defined at an ultraviolet scale (such as the Planck scale), and proceed to perform quantum-mechanical calculations in the usual way Donoghue94 . However, radiative corrections will induce an infinite series of counterterms as we flow to lower energies and such counterterms will not be reabsorbed into the original Lagrangian by adjusting its bare parameters. Instead, such terms will appear as new, higher-derivative correction terms in the Einstein–Hilbert action (1).
Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the previous discussion focuses on Lagrangian gravity in a four-dimensional spacetime. In the context of string theory, General Relativity emerges only as a leading approximation. String theory also predicts an infinite set of non-linear terms in the scalar curvature, all suppressed by powers of the Planck scale. Moreover, the low-energy effective action of string theory contains additional scalar (dilatonic) and vector gravitational fields Green88 . Motivated by ideas of string theory, brane-world gravity Maartens04 , DGP00a , DGP00b , DGP00c  also provides a self-consistent theory that is consistent with all current tests of gravity.
All the above strongly support the notion that the field equation that arises from the Einstein–Hilbert action may be appropriate only at the scales that have been probed by current gravitational tests. But how deep have we looked?
Gravitational tests to date seldom probe strong gravitational fields. – All historical tests of general relativity have been performed in our solar system. The strongest gravitational field they can, therefore, probe is that at the surface of the Sun, which corresponds to a gravitational redshift of
and to a spacetime curvature of
Coincidentally, the gravitational fields that have been probed in tests using double neutron stars are of the same magnitude, since the masses and separation of the two neutron stars in the systems under consideration are comparable to the mass and radius of the Sun, respectively111Note, however, that some of the phenomena observed in double neutron stars depend on the coupling of matter and gravity in the strong-field regime Damour93 .. These are substantially weaker fields than those found in the vicinities of neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes, which correspond to a redshift of and a spacetime curvature of cm.
It is instructive to compare the degree to which current tests verify the predictions of General Relativity to the increase in the strength of the gravitational field going from the solar system to the vicinity of a compact object. Current constraints on the deviation of the PPN parameters from the General Relativistic predictions are of order Will06 . It is conceivable, therefore, that deviations consistent with these constraints can grow and become of order unity when the redshift of the gravitational field probed is increased by six orders of magnitude and the spacetime curvature by fifteen!
Is it possible, however, that General Relativity still describes accurately phenomena that occur in the strong gravitational fields found in the vicinity of stellar-mass black holes and neutron stars?
General Relativity breaks down at the strong-field regime. – Our current understanding of the physical world leaves very little doubt that the theory of General Relativity itself breaks down at the limit of very strong gravitational fields. Considering the theory simply as a classical, geometric description of the spacetime leads to predictions of infinite matter densities and curvatures in two different settings. Integrating forward in time the Oppenheimer–Snyder equations, which describe the collapse of a cloud of dust Oppenheimer39 , leads to the formation of a black hole with a singularity at its center. Integrating backwards in time the Friedmann equation, which describes the evolution of a uniform and isotropic universe, always results in a singularity at the beginning of time, the big bang. Clearly, the outcome in both of these settings is unphysical.
It is widely believed that quantum gravity prohibits these unphysical situations that occur at the limit of infinitely strong gravitational fields. Even though none of the observable astrophysical objects offer the possibility of testing gravity at the Planck scale, they will nevertheless allow placing constraints on deviations from general relativity that are as large as orders of magnitude more stringent compared to all other current tests. This is the best result we can expect in the near future to come out of the detection of gravitational waves and the observation of the innermost regions of neutron stars and black holes with NASA’s Beyond Einstein missions. If the history of the recent detection of a minute yet non-zero cosmological constant is any measure of our inability to predict even the order of magnitude of gravitational effects that we have not directly probed, then we might be up for a pleasant surprise!
3 Astrophysical and Cosmological Settings of Strong Gravitational Fields
3.1 When is a gravitational field strong?
Looking at the Schwarzschild spacetime, it is natural to measure the “strength” of the gravitational field at a distance away from an object of mass by the parameter
which is proportional to the Newtonian gravitational potential and is also directly related to the redshift. Infinitesimal gravitational fields correspond to the limit , which leads to the Minkowski spacetime of special relativity. Weak gravitational fields correspond to , which leads to Newtonian gravity. Finally, the strongest gravitational fields accessible to an observer are characterized by , at which point the black-hole horizon of an object of mass is approached. (Note that formally the horizon of a Schwarzschild black hole occurs at ; I drop here the factor of 2, as I am mostly interested in dimensional arguments).
Albeit useful in defining post-Newtonian expansions, the parameter is not fundamental in characterizing a gravitational field in Einstein’s theory. Indeed, the geodesic equation and the Einstein field equation (or equivalently, the Einstein–Hilbert action ) are written in terms of the Ricci scalar, the Ricci tensor, and the Riemann tensor, all of which measure the curvature of the field and not its potential. As a result, when we consider deviations from General Relativity that arise by adding linearly terms to the Einstein–Hilbert action, the critical strength of the gravitational field beyond which these additional terms become important is typically given in terms of the spacetime curvature.
For example, in the presence of a cosmological constant, the metric of a spherically symmetric object becomes
and the Newtonian approximation becomes invalid when
In this case, a gravitational field is “weak” if the spacetime curvature is smaller than , independent of the value of the parameter . In the opposite extreme, if there are additional terms in the action of the gravitational field beyond the Einstein–Hilbert term, such as
then the General Relativistic predictions become inaccurate at strong gravitational fields defined by the condition
even if the parameter is much smaller than unity. Note that, in Equation (8), is an appropriate constant with units of (length) and I have set the Ricci scalar to (I use this here as an order of magnitude estimate and do not consider the fact that, if the distance is larger than the radius of the object, then the Ricci scalar in General Relativity vanishes).
Similar considerations lead to a condition on curvature when we add to the Einstein–Hilbert action terms that invoke additional scalar, vector, and tensor fields. In all these cases, a strong gravitational field is characterized not by a large gravitational potential (i.e., a high value of the parameter ) but rather by a large curvature
Because the condition that the curvature needs to satisfy in order for a gravitational field to be considered “strong” depends on the particular deviation from General Relativity under study (cf. Equations  and ) I will not normalize the parameter to any particular energy density but rather leave it, hereafter, as a dimensional quantity.
This is an appropriate parameter with which to measure the strength of a gravitational field in a geometric theory of gravity, such as General Relativity, because the curvature is the lowest order quantity of the gravitational field that cannot be set to zero by a coordinate transformation. Moreover, because the curvature measures energy density, a limit on curvature will correspond to an energy scale beyond which additional gravitational degrees of freedom may become important.
3.2 A parameter space for tests of gravity
The two parameters, and , define a parameter space on which we can quantify the strengths of the gravitational fields probed by different tests of gravity (see Figure 1). Only a fraction of this parameter space is accessible to experiments. Regions of the parameter space with potential correspond to distances from a gravitating object that are smaller than the horizon radius and are, therefore, inaccessible to observers. (I neglect here, for simplicity, the small numerical factor in the horizon radius that depends on the spin of the black hole.) In Figure 1, this region is outlined by the vertical red line.
Quantifying deviations from General Relativity for part of the parameter space requires a detailed understanding of the properties of dark matter and dark energy, which is beyond current capabilities. In the limit of very small values of the curvature, the presence of a non-zero cosmological constant affects the outcome of gravitational experiments when (see eq. )
where is the current density of dark energy in units of the critical density and is the current value of the Hubble constant. Phenomena that probe such low values of curvature (i.e., below the horizontal green line in Figure 1) can lead to quantitative tests of General Relativity only if a specific model of dark energy (e.g., a cosmological constant) is assumed.
The ability to perform a quantitative test of a gravity theory also relies on an independent measurement of the mass that generates the gravitational field. This is not always possible, especially in various cosmological settings, where gravitational phenomena are used mostly to infer the presence of dark matter and not to test General Relativistic predictions. Dark matter is typically required in systems for which the acceleration drops below the so-called MOND acceleration scale cm s Milgrom83 , Sanders02 , Bekenstein07 . (This is an observed fact, independent of whether the inability of Newtonian gravity to account for observations is due to the presence of dark matter or to the breakdown of the theory itself.) This acceleration scale is also comparable to . Systems for which dark matter is necessary to account for their gravitational fields are characterized by
This region of the parameter space is outlined by the purple line in Figure 1. The fact that the three lines that correspond to the Schwarzschild horizon, the MOND acceleration scale, and the dark energy all seem to intersect roughly in one point in the parameter space is directly related to the cosmic coincidence problem, i.e., that the universe is flat, with comparable amounts of (mostly dark) matter and dark energy.
In the opposite limit of very strong gravitational fields, General Relativity is expected to break down when quantum effects become impossible to neglect. This is expected to happen if a gravitational test probes a distance from an object of mass that is comparable to the Compton wavelength , where is Planck’s constant. Quantum effects are, therefore, expected to dominate when
where cm is the Planck length. This part of the parameter space is not shown in Figure 1, as it is many orders of magnitude away from the values of the parameters that correspond to astrophysical systems.
Having defined the parameter space and outlined the various limiting cases, I can now identify the various astrophysical systems that probe its various regimes. In general, systems of constant central mass will follow curves of the form
whereas probes at a constant distance away from the central object will follow curves of the form
Figure 1 shows a number of representative contours of constant mass and distance.
The strongest gravitational fields around astrophysical systems can be found in the vicinities of neutron stars (NS in Figure 1) and black holes in X-ray binaries (XRB). Large gravitational potentials but smaller curvatures can be found around the horizons of intermediate mass black holes (; IMBHs) and in active galactic nuclei (; AGN). Weaker gravitational fields exist near the surfaces of white dwarfs (WD), main-sequence stars (MS), or at the distances of the various planets in our solar system (SS). Finally, even weaker gravitational fields are probed by observations of the motions of stars in the vicinity of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way (Sgr A), and by studies of the rotational curve of the Milky Way (MW) and other galaxies. In placing the various systems on the parameter space shown in Figure 1, I have used a typical mass-radius relation for neutron stars and white dwarfs Shapiro84 , the calculated mass-radius relation of main-sequence stars Clayton83 , and the inferred mass-radius profile of the inner region around Sgr A Schodel02 , which smoothly approaches the mass profile inferred from the rotation curve of the Milky Way Dehnen98 .
Current tests of General Relativity with astrophysical objects probe a wide range of gravitational potentials and curvatures (see Figure 2). However, they fall short of probing the most extreme phenomena that are predicted by the theory to occur in the vicinities of compact objects. For example, tests during solar eclipses, with double neutron stars (such as the Hulse–Taylor pulsar), or with Grav Prob B probe curvatures that are the same as those found near the horizons of supermassive black holes, but potentials that are smaller by six to ten orders of magnitude. Moreover, all these tests probe curvatures that are smaller by thirteen or more orders of magnitude from those found near the surfaces of neutron stars and the horizons of stellar-mass black holes. Future experiments, such as the gravitational wave detectors and the Beyond Einstein missions, will offer for the first time the opportunity to probe directly such strong gravitational fields.
The whole range of gravitational fields, from the weakest to the strongest, can also be found during various epochs of the evolution of the universe. As a result, observations of cosmological phenomena may also probe very strong gravitational fields. The scalar curvature of a flat universe is given by
where is the scale factor. Using the Friedmann equation, the scalar curvature becomes
where and are the (non-relativistic) matter and dark energy densities in the present universe, respectively, in units of the critical density. Equation (17) shows that, at late times, the radius of curvature of the universe is comparable to the Hubble distance.
The evolution of the scalar curvature with redshift for a flat universe and for the best-fit cosmological parameters obtained by the WMAP mission Spergel03  is shown in Figure 3. Identified on this figure are several characteristic epochs that have been used in testing General Relativistic predictions: the epoch of type I supernovae that are used to measure the value of the cosmological constant Perl97 , Riess98 ; the epoch at which the acoustic peaks of the cosmic microwave background observed by WMAP are produced; and the period of nucleosynthesis during which the temperature of the universe was in the range 60 keV – 1 MeV Santiago97 , Carroll02 . The period of big-bang nucleosynthesis is the earliest epoch for which quantitative tests have been performed. The corresponding scalar curvature of the universe at that time, however, is still small and comparable to the curvatures of gravitational fields probed by current tests of General Relativity in the solar system. It was only when the temperature of the Universe was GeV that its curvature was cm, i.e., comparable to that found around a neutron star or stellar-mass black hole. This is the period of electroweak baryogenesis, for which no detailed theoretical models or data exist to date.
3.3 Probing versus testing strong-field gravity
The parameter space shown in Figure 1 is useful in identifying the strength of the gravitational field probed by a particular test of gravity. However, it is important to emphasize that probing a gravitational field of a given strength is not necessarily the same as testing General Relativity in that regime. I discuss bellow the difference with two examples from scalar-tensor gravity that illustrate the two opposite extremes.
First, a phenomenon that occurs in a weak gravitational field may actually be testing the strong-field regime of gravity. In General Relativity, Birkhoff’s theorem states that the external spacetime of a spherically symmetric object is described by the Schwarzschild metric, independent of the properties of the object itself. Birkhoff’s theorem, however, does not apply to a variety of gravity theories, such as scalar-tensor or non-linear (e.g., ) theories. In fact, in these theories, the spacetime at any point around a spherically symmetric object depends on the mass distribution that generates the spacetime, which may itself lie in a strong gravitational field and, therefore, probe that regime of the theory. For example, in Brans–Dicke gravity, which is a special case of scalar-tensor theories, the evolution of the binary orbit in a system with two neutron stars due to the emission of gravitational waves depends on the coupling of matter to the scalar field, which occurs in the strong gravitational field of each neutron star Eardley75 , Will89 , Damour96 . As a result, even though the gravitational field that corresponds to a double-neutron star orbit is rather weak (see Figure 2), observations of the orbital decay of the binary actually test General Relativity against scalar-tensor theories in the strong-field regime Damour96 .
In the opposite extreme, phenomena that probe strong gravitational fields cannot necessarily be used in testing General Relativity in this regime. Analytical and numerical studies strongly suggest that the end state of the collapse of a star in Brans–Dicke gravity is a black hole described by the Kerr spacetime of General Relativity Thorne71 , Bekenstein72 , Hawking72 , Scheel95 , Psaltis07b . Therefore, the observation of a phenomenon that occurs even just above the horizon of a black hole cannot be used in testing General Relativity against Brans–Dicke gravity in the strong-field regime, because both theories make the exact same prediction for that phenomenon.
In the following, I will distinguish attempts to probe phenomena that occur exclusively in the strong-field regime of General Relativity from those that aim to test the strong-field predictions of the theory against various alternatives.
4 Probing Strong Gravitational Fields with Astrophysical Objects
A number of astrophysical objects offer the possibility of detecting directly the observable consequences of two strong-field predictions of General Relativity that have no weak-field or Newtonian counterparts: the presence of a horizon around a collapsed object and the lack of stable circular orbits in the vicinity of a neutron star or black hole. As in most other areas of astrophysics research, we have to rely on imaging, spectral, or timing observations in order to reveal the information of the strong-field effects that is encoded in the detected photons. The construction of gravitational wave observatories will offer, for the first time in the near future, a wealth of additional probes into the inner workings of gravitational fields in the vicinities of compact objects.
In the following, I review a number of recent attempts to probe strong-field phenomena that have used a variety of techniques and were applied to different astrophysical objects. I will only discuss phenomena that are observable in the electromagnetic spectrum and refer to a number of excellent reviews on the gravitational phenomena that are anticipated to be detected by gravitational wave observatories Hugh00 , Flanagan05 .
4.1 Black hole images
To paraphrase the common proverb, a picture is worth a thousand spectra. Directly imaging the vicinity of a black hole promises to provide a direct evidence for the existence of a horizon. However, black holes are notoriously small, and the resolution required for imaging their horizons is, for most cases, beyond current capabilities. For a stellar-mass black hole in the galaxy, the opening angle of the horizon, as viewed by an observer on Earth, is only
where is the mass of the black hole and is its distance.
For a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, the opening angle is
This is shown in Figure 4 for a number of supermassive black holes with secure mass determinations. The angular size of the horizons of some of the sources are barely resolvable today with interferometric observations in the sub-mm/infrared wavelengths and will be resolvable in the X-rays in near future with the Black Hole Imager Ozel01 .
The black hole that combines the highest brightness with the largest angular size of the horizon is the one that powers the source Sgr A, in the center of the Milky Way. Since the first measurements of the size of the source at 7 mm Lo98  and at 1.4 mm Krichbaum98  demonstrated that the emitting region is only a few times larger than the radius of the horizon (see Figure 5), a number of observational and theoretical investigations have aimed to probe deeper into the gravitational field of the black hole and constrain its properties.
The long-wavelength spectrum of Sgr A peaks at a frequency of Hz, suggesting that the emission changes from optically thick (probably synchrotron emission) to optically thin at a comparable frequency (see, e.g., Narayan95 ). As a result, observations at frequencies comparable to or higher than the transition frequency can, in principle, probe the accretion flow at regions very close to the horizon of the black hole.
Even though the exact shape and size of the image of Sgr A at long wavelengths depends on the detailed structure of the underlying accretion flow (cf. Ozel00  and Yuan03 ), there exist two generic observable signatures of its strong gravitational field. First, the horizon leaves a ‘shadow’ on the image of the source, which is equal to and roughly independent of the spin of the black hole Bardeen73 , Falcke00 , Takahashi04 , Broderick06 , Noble07 . Second, the brightness of the image of the accretion flow is highly non-uniform because of the high velocity of the accreting plasma and the effects of the strong gravitational lensing. Simultaenously fitting the size, shape, polarization map, and centroid of the image observed at different wavelengths with future telescopes, will offer the unique possibility of removing the complications introduced by the unknown nature of the accretion flow, imaging directly the black hole shadow, and measuring the spin of the black hole Broderick06b .
4.2 Continuum spectroscopy of accreting black holes
There have been at least three different efforts published in the literature that use the luminosities and the continuum spectra of accreting black holes to look for evidence of strong-field phenomena.
4.2.1 Luminosities of black holes in quiescence and the absence of a hard surface
More low-mass X-ray binaries are stellar systems in which the primary star is a compact object and the secondary star is filling its Roche lobe. Matter is transferred from the companion star to the compact object and releases its gravitational potential energy mostly as high-energy radiation, making these systems the brightest sources in the X-ray sky Psaltis06 , McClintock06 .
The rate with which mass is transfered from the companion star to the compact object is determined by the ratio of masses of the two stars, the evolutionary state of the companion star, and the orbital separation Verbunt93 . On the other hand, the rate with which energy is released in the form of high-energy radiation depends on the rate of mass transfer, the state of the accretion flow (i.e., whether it is via a geometrically thin disk or a geometrically thick but radiatively inefficient flow), and on whether the compact object has a hard surface or an event horizon. Indeed, for a neutron-star system in steady state, most of the released gravitational potential energy has to be radiated away (only a small fraction heats the stellar core Brown98 ), whereas for a black hole system, a significant amount of the potential energy may be advected inwards past the event horizon, and hence may be forever lost from the observable universe. For similar systems, in the same accretion state, one would therefore expect black holes to be systematically underluminous than neutron stars Narayan97 .
The luminosities of transient black holes and neutron stars in their quiescent states most clearly show this trend. When plotted against the orbital periods of the binary systems, which are used here as observable proxies to the mass transfer rates, sources that are believed to be black holes, based on their large masses, are systematically underluminous (Figure 6 and Narayan97 , Garcia01 , McClintock04 ). Although the physical mechanism behind the difference in luminosities is still a matter of debate Narayan97 , Bildsten00 , Lasota00 , the trend shown in Figure 6 appears to be a strong, albeit indirect, evidence for the presence of an event horizon in compact objects with masses larger than the highest possible mass of a neutron star.
4.2.2 Hard X-ray spectra of luminous black holes and the presence of an event horizon
Galactic black holes in some of their most luminous states (the so-called very high states) have mostly thermal spectra in the soft X-rays with power-law tails that extend well into the soft -rays Grove98 . It has been hypothesized that these power-law tails are the result of Compton upscattering of soft X-ray photons off the relativistic electrons that flow into the black hole event horizon with speeds that approach the speed of light and, therefore, constitute an observational signature of the presence of an event horizon (e.g., see Titarchuk98 , Laurent99 )
A relativistic converging flow has indeed the potential of producing power-law spectral tails (e.g., see Payne81 , Titarchuk97 , Psaltis01 ). However, this mechanism is identical to a second order Fermi acceleration and hence the power-law tail is a result of multiple scatterings away from the horizon with small energy exchange per scattering rather than the result of very few scatterings of photons with ultrarelativistic electrons near the black hole horizon Psaltis97 , Papathanassiou00 . Moreover, the model spectra always cut-off at energies smaller than the electron rest mass Laurent99 , Niedzwiecki06  whereas the observed spectra extend into the MeV range Grove98 . Successful theoretical models of the power-law spectra of black holes that are based on Comptonization of soft photons by non-thermal electrons Gierlinski99  as well as the discovery of similar power-law tails in the spectra of accreting neutron stars that extend to keV DiSalvo01 , DiSalvo06  have shown conclusively that the observed power-law tails do not constitute evidence for black hole event horizons.
4.2.3 Measuring the radii of the innermost stable circular orbits of black holes using continuum spectra
The thermal spectrum of a black hole source in some of its most luminous states is believed to originate in a geometrically thin accretion disk. The temperature profile of such an accretion disk away from the black hole is determined entirely by energy conservation and is independent of the magnitude and properties of the mechanism that transports angular momentum and allows for matter to accrete (as long as this mechanism is local; see Shakura73 , Balbus99 ). The situation is very different, however, near the radius of the innermost stable circular orbit (hereafter ISCO).
Inside the ISCO, fluid elements cannot stay in circular orbits but instead quickly loose centrifugal support and rapidly fall into the black hole. The density of the accretion disk inside the ISCO is very small and the viscous heating is believed to be strongly diminished. It is, therefore, expected that only material outside the ISCO contributes to the observed thermal spectrum. The temperature profile of the accretion flow just outside the ISCO depends rather strongly on the mechanism that transports angular momentum outwards and in particular on the magnitude of the torque at the ISCO Krolik99 , Gammie99 , Agol00 . To lowest order, however, if the entire accretion disk spectrum can be decomposed as a sum of blackbodies, each at the local temperature of every radial annulus, then the highest temperature will be that of the plasma near the ISCO and the corresponding flux of radiation will be directly proportional to the square of the ISCO radius.
Phenomenological fits of multi-temperature blackbody models to the observed spectra of black holes provide strong support to the above interpretation. When model spectra are fit to observations of any given black hole in luminosity states that differ by more than one order of magnitude, the inferred ISCO radius remains approximately constant Tanaka95 . For systems with a dynamically measured mass and with a known distance, such an observation can lead to a measurement of the physical size of the ISCO and hence of the spin of the black hole Zhang97 , Gierlinski01  (see Figure 7).
There are a number of complications associated with producing the model spectra of multitemperature blackbody disks that are required in measuring spectroscopically the ISCO radius around a black hole. First, as discussed above, the temperature profile of an accretion disk at the region around the ISCO depends very strongly on the details of the mechanism of angular momentum transport, which are poorly understood Krolik99 , Gammie99 , Agol00 . Second, the vertical structure of the disk at each annulus, which determines the emerging spectrum, may or may not be in hydrostatic equilibrium near the ISCO, as it is often assumed, and its structure depends strongly on the external irradiation of the disk plasma by photons that originate in other parts of the disk. Finally, material in the inner accretion disk is highly ionized and often far from local thermodynamic equilibrium, generating spectra that can be significantly different from blackbodies Hubeny97 .
There have been a number of approximate models of multi-temperature accretion disks that take into account some of these effects, in a phenomenological or in an ab initio way. The models of Li et al. Li05  are based on the alpha-model for angular momentum transport, assume that the local emission from each annulus is a blackbody at the local temperature, and take into account the strong lensing of the emitted photons by the central black hole. On the other hand, the models of Davis et al. Davis05  are the result of ionization-equilibrium and radiative transfer calculations at each annulus, they are based on the alpha model for angular momentum but allow for non-zero torques at the ISCO, and take into account the strong lensing of photons by the black hole.
Given the flux of the accretion disk measured by an observer on Earth, the color temperature that corresponds to the innermost region in the disk that is emitting (which presumably is near the ISCO), the distance to the source, and the mass of the black hole, the spin of the black hole can be inferred Zhang97  by equating the radius of the ISCO, i.e.,
to the one inferred spectroscopically (since ) by
Here , , is the specific angular momentum per unit mass for the black hole, and the positive (negative) sign is taken for prograde (retrograde) disks. In these equations, is the Stefan–Boltzmann constant and is the inclination of the observer with respect to the symmetry axis of the accretion disk. The functions ) and are correction factors for the flux and the temperature, respectively, that need to be calculated when going from an accretion disk annulus to a distant observer and incorporate the combined effects of gravitational lensing, gravitational redshift, and Doppler boosting of the disk photons. Given a thickness of the accretion disk, both these transfer functions can be computed to any desired degree of accuracy. Finally, the factor measures the ratio of the color temperature of the spectrum (as measured by fitting a blackbody to the observed spectrum) to the effective temperature in that annulus in the accretion disk (which is a measure of the total radiation flux emerging from that annulus). Computing the value of the factor is the goal of the recent calculations of the ionization equilibrium and radiative transfer in accretion disks Davis05 .
Fitting these spectral models to a number of observations of black hole candidates with dynamically measured masses has resulted in approximate measurements of their spins: for GRS 1915105 Midleton05 , McClintock06b ; for 4U 1543-44 Shafee06 ; for GRO J165540 Shafee06 . It is remarkable that all inferred values of the black hole spins are high, comparable to the maximum allowed by the Kerr solution.
Equations (20) and (21) demonstrate the strong dependence of the inferred values of black hole spins on various observable quantities (the mass of, distance to, and inclination of the black hole, as well as the flux, and temperature of its disk spectrum) and on a model parameter (the color correction factor ). Numerical simulations of magnetohydrodynamic flows onto black holes are finely tuned to resolve the length- and timescales of phenomena that occur in the vicinity of the horizon of a black hole (see, e.g., Gammie03 , deVilliers03 ). When such models incorporate accurate multi-dimensional radiative transfer, they will provide the best theoretical spectra to be compared directly to observations (see, e.g., Blaes06 ). Moreover, monitoring of the same sources at long wavelengths will improve the measurements of their masses and distances. Finally, combination of this with other methods based on line spectra and the rapid variability properties of accreting black holes will enable us to tighten the uncertainties in the various model parameters and observed quantities that enter Equation (20) and measure with high precision the spins of galactic black holes.
4.3 Line spectroscopy of accreting compact objects
Heavy elements on the surface layers of neutron stars or in the accretion flows around black holes that are not fully ionized generate atomic emission and absorption lines that can be detected by a distant observer with a large gravitational redshift. The value of the gravitational redshift can be used to uniquely identify the region in the spacetime of the compact object in which the observed photons are produced.
4.3.1 Atomic lines from the surfaces of neutron stars
The gravitational redshift of an atomic line from the surface layer of a neutron star leads to a unique determination of the relation between its mass and radius. The detection of a rotationally broadened atomic line from a rapidly spinning neutron star offers the additional possibility of measuring directly the stellar radius Ozel03 , Chang06  and, therefore, of determining its mass, as well. The profile of a rotationally broadened atomic line can be used to study frame-dragging effects in the strong-field regime Bhattacharya05 . Moreover, detecting a gravitationally redshifted and rotationally broadened atomic line can lead to a measurement of the oblateness of the spinning star Cadeau07 , which is determined by the strong-field coupling of matter with the gravitationally field. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few astrophysical settings discussed in this review in which observations significantly trail behind theoretical investigations.
Despite many optimistic expectations and early claims (see, e.g., Lewin93 ), the observed spectra of almost all weakly-magnetic neutron stars are remarkably featureless. The best studied case is that of the nearby isolated neutron star RX J18563754, which was observed for 450 ks with the Chandra X-ray Observatory and showed no evidence for any atomic lines from heavy elements Braje02 . This is in fact not surprising, given that heavy elements drift inwards of the photosphere in timescales of minutes Bildsten92  and it takes only of light elements to blanket a heavy element surface.
There are two types of neutron stars, however, in the atmospheres of which heavy elements may abound: young cooling neutron stars and accreting X-ray bursters Ozel03 . On the one hand, the escaping latent heat of the supernova explosion makes young neutron stars relatively bright sources of X-rays. Their strong magnetic fields can inhibit accretion of light elements either from the supernova fallback or from the interstellar medium, leaving the surface heavy elements exposed. On the other hand, in the atmospheres of accreting, weakly magnetic neutron stars, heavy elements are continuously replenished. Moreover, large radiation fluxes pass through their atmospheres during thermonuclear bursts Strohmayer06  making them very bright and easily detectable.
The most promising detection to date of gravitationally redshifted lines from the surface of a neutron star came from an observation with XMM-Newton of the source EXO 0748676, which showed redshifted atomic lines during thermonuclear flashes Cottam02 . This is a slowly spinning neutron star (47 Hz Villarreal04 ) and hence its external spacetime can be accurately described by the Schwarzschild metric. In this case, the measurement of a gravitational redshift of leads to a unique determination of the relation between the mass and the radius of the neutron star, i.e., km. Combination of this result with the spectral properties of thermonuclear bursts during periods of photospheric radius expansion and in the cooling tales also allowed for an independent determination of the mass and radius of the neutron star Ozel06 .
Future observations of bursting or young neutron stars with upcoming X-ray missions such as Constellation-X ConX  and XEUS XEUS  have the potential of detecting many gravitationally redshifted atomic lines and, hence, of probing the coupling of matter to the strong gravitational fields found in the interiors of neutron stars.
4.3.2 Relativistically broadened iron lines in accreting black holes
Astrophysical black holes in active galactic nuclei accreting at moderate rates offer another possibility of probing strong gravitational fields using atomic spectroscopy (for an extensive review on the subject see Reynolds03 ; see also Miller07  for a review of iron line observations from stellar-mass black holes). The relatively cool accretion disks in these systems act as large mirrors, reflecting the high-energy radiation that is believed to be produced in the disk coronae by magnetic flaring Guilbert88 . The spectrum of reflected radiation in hard X-rays is determined by electron scattering, whereas the spectrum in the soft X-rays is characterized by a large number of fluorescent lines caused by bound-bound transitions of the partially ionized material. The combination of the high yield and relatively high abundance of iron atoms in the accreting material make the iron K line, with a rest energy of 6.4 keV for a neutral atom, the most prominent feature of the spectrum.
The profile of the fluorescent iron line as observed at infinity is determined mainly by general and special relativistic effects that influence the propagation of photons from the point of reflection to the observer Laor91 . Dividing an accretion disk into a series of concentric rings orbiting at the local Keplerian frequency, special relativistic effects produce a rotational splitting of the line emerging from each ring, whereas general relativistic effects generate an overall redshift Fabian89 . The combination of these effects integrated over the entire surface of the accretion disk leads to a characteristic profile for the iron reflection line, which is broad with a shallow and extended red wing (Figure 8).
The magnitude of the relativistic effects depends on the specifics of the spacetime of the black hole, on the position and orientation of the observer, on the position and properties of the source of X-rays above the accretion disk, and on the dependence of fluorescence yield on position on the accretion disk through its dependence on the ionization states of the elements George91 . Given a model for the source of X-rays and the accretion disk, fitting the profile of an iron line from an accreting black hole can lead, in principle, to a direct mapping of its spacetime. Unfortunately, the source of X-ray illumination and the physical properties of the accretion flows themselves are poorly understood.
If we make assumptions regarding these astrophysical complications that are largely model independent, a general property of the spacetime, such as the spin of the black hole, can be measured. The accretion disk is typically modeled as a geometrically thin reflecting surface at the rotational equator of the black hole that is extending inwards until the radius of the innermost stable circular orbit. Even though the density of the material inside this radius is significant and might reflect the illuminating X-rays, its ionization state changes rapidly, leading to small changes in the resulting iron line profile Reynolds97 , Brenneman06 . The extent of the iron line towards lower energies is a measure of the innermost radius of the accretion disk. By assumption, this radius is set as the radius of the innermost stable circular orbit, which depends on the spin of the black hole. Fitting theoretical models to observations can, therefore, lead to a measurement of the black hole spin.
The uncertainties in the position of the illuminating source and in the disk structure are often modeled by a single function for the “emissivity” of the iron line, which measures the flux in the iron line that emerges locally from each patch on the accretion disk. This is typically taken to be axisymmetric and to have a power-law dependence on radius, i.e., . Increasing the emissivity index results in iron line profiles with more extended red wings, which is degenerate with increasing the spin of the black hole (see Figure 8 and Beckwith04 ). This uncertainty can introduce significant systematics in modeling iron-line profiles from slowly spinning black holes. For rapidly spinning black holes, however, masking the effect of the black hole spin by steepening the emissivity function requires an unphysically high value for the emissivity index Brenneman06 .
Since the original observation of broadened iron lines from the supermasive black hole MCG-6-15-30 with ASCA Tanaka95b , observations of other active galactic nuclei with ASCA Nandra97 , XMM-Newton Nandra06 , and more recently with Suzaku Reeves06  as well as of stellar mass black holes Miller06  have revealed many more examples of such redshifted atomic lines. The best studied case remains MCG-6-15-30 (see Figure 9), in which the extended red wing of the line has been discussed as evidence for a rapidly spinning black hole ( Brenneman06 ).
Perhaps the most challenging, although most rewarding to understand, property of iron lines is their time variability. Current observations of iron lines from accreting black holes (e.g., the one shown in Figure 9) are integrated over a time that is equal to many hundred times the dynamical timescale in the accretion-disk region where the lines are formed. As a result, an observed line profile is not the result of reflection from an accretion disk of a single flaring event, but rather the convolution of many such events that occurred over the duration of the observation. Moreover, the continuum spectrum of the black hole, which is presumably reflected off the accretion disk to produce the fluorescent iron line, changes over longer timescales, implying a correlated variability of the line itself.
Observations with current instruments can only investigate the correlated variability of the iron line with the continuum spectrum (see, however, Iwasawa04 ). They have shown that the flux in the line remains remarkably constant even though the continuum flux changes by almost an order of magnitude Fabian03 . General relativistic light bending, which leads to focusing of the photon rays towards the innermost regions of the accretion disk may be responsible for this puzzling effect Miniutti04 .
Future observations with upcoming X-ray missions such as Constellation X ConX  and XEUS XEUS  will resolve the time evolution of the reflected iron line from a single magnetic flare Reynolds99 . Because density inhomogeneities in the turbulent accretion flow move, roughly, in test-particle orbits Armitage03 , the time evolution of the redshift of the iron line from a single flare reflected mainly off a localized density inhomogeneity will allow for a direct mapping of the spacetime around the black hole.
4.4 The fast variability of accreting compact objects
The strongest gravitational fields in astrophysics can be probed only with rapidly variable phenomena around neutron stars and galactic black holes (see Figure 18). Such phenomena have been discovered in almost all known accreting compact objects in the galaxy. They are quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs) with frequencies in the range Hz kHz that remain coherent for tens to hundreds of cycles and follow a rich and often complicated phenomenology (for an extensive review of the observations see vanderKlis06 ).
4.4.1 Quasi-periodic oscillations in neutron stars
The fastest oscillations detected from accreting, weakly magnetic neutron stars are pairs of QPOs with variable frequencies that reach up to Hz and with frequency separations of order Hz vanderKlis06 . The origin of these oscillations is still a matter of debate. However, all current models associate at least one of the oscillation frequencies with a characteristic dynamical frequency in a geometrically thin accretion disk (see discussion in Psaltis01a  and Miller98 , Stella99 , Psaltis00b ).
The highest dynamical frequency excited at any radius in an equatorial accretion disk around a compact object is the one associated with the circular orbit of a test particle at that radius Bardeen73b ; this is often referred to as the azimuthal, orbital, or Keplerian frequency. A mode in the accretion disk associated with this frequency can give rise to a long-lived quasi-periodic oscillation only if it lives outside the innermost stable circular orbit. The azimuthal frequency at this radius provides, therefore, an upper limit on the frequency of any observed oscillation Kluzniak85 , Miller98 . As a result, detecting such rapid oscillations offers the possibility of measuring the location and of understanding the properties of the region near the innermost stable circular orbit around a neutron star.
The signature of the ISCO on the amplitudes and characteristics of the observed oscillations is hard to predict without a firm model for the generation of the oscillations in the X-ray flux. Two potential signatures have been discussed, however, based on the phenomenology of the oscillations. The first one is associated with the fact that the frequencies of the oscillations appear to increase roughly with accretion rate. When an oscillation frequency reaches that of the innermost stable circular orbit, one would expect its frequency to remain constant over a wide range of accretion rates Miller98 . Such a trend has been observed in the quasi-periodic oscillations of the globular cluster source 4U 182030 Zhang98 , Kaaret99 ; Figure 10). When observations of the source obtained over different epochs are combined, the dependence of the frequency of the fastest oscillation on the observed accretion rate appears to flatten at a value Hz. This is comparable to the azimuthal frequency at the innermost stable circular orbit for a neutron star Zhang98 .
Albeit suggestive, the interpretation of the 4U 182030 data relies on the assumption that the oscillatory frequencies in an accretion disk depend monotonically on the accretion rate and, furthermore, that the X-ray countrate is a good measure of the accretion rate. This assumption is probably justified for short timescales (of order one day) but is known to break down on longer timescales, such as those used in Figure 10 vanderKlis01 . Indeed, in a given source, the same oscillation frequencies have been observed over a wide range of X-ray countrates and vice versa vanderKlis01 . The hard X-ray color of a source and not the countrate appears to be a more unique measure of the accretion rate, which is presumably the physical parameter that determines the oscillation frequencies Mendez99 . When the data of 4U 182030 are plotted against hard color, the characteristic flattening seen in Figure 10 disappears Mendez99 .
A second signature of the innermost stable circular orbit is a potential decrease in the amplitude and coherence of the oscillations when the region where they are excited approaches the ISCO. Such a trend has been observed in a number of accreting neutron stars (Figure 11 and Barret06 , Barret07 ) and has been questioned on similar grounds as the study of 4U 182030 Mendez06 . The most significant criticism comes from the fact that the drop in amplitude and coherence is rather gradual and occurs over a Hz range of frequencies. Even assuming that this drop is a signature of the ISCO, measuring its location will be possible only within a detailed model of the frequencies of quasi-periodic oscillations.
Among more model-dependent ideas, perhaps the most exciting prospect of probing strong-field gravity effects in neutron stars with quasi-periodic oscillations comes from applying the relativistic model of QPOs Stella99  to the observed correlations between various pairs of QPO frequencies Psaltis99 . In the relativistic model, the highest-frequency QPO is identified with the azimuthal frequency of a test particle in orbit at a given radius. The peak separation of this QPO with the second higher frequency QPO is identified as the radial epicyclic frequency of the test particle in the same orbit. A variant of this model can account for the observed correlations between oscillations frequencies, when hydrodynamic effects are taken into account Psaltis00b . Because the two observed frequencies are directly related to the azimuthal and radial frequencies at various radii in the accretion flow, interpretation of the data with this model can provide a direct map of the exterior spacetime of the neutron stars, to within the % uncertainty introduced by the hydrodynamic corrections to the oscillation frequencies.
4.4.2 Quasi-periodic oscillations in black holes
Pairs of rapid quasi-periodic oscillations have also been detected from a number of accreting systems that harbor black hole candidates McClintock06 . The phenomenology of these oscillations is very different from the one discussed above for accreting neutron stars. The frequencies of the rapid oscillations observed in each source vary at most by a percent over a wide range of luminosities and their ratios are practically equal to ratios of small integers (2:3 for XTE J1550564 and GRO J165540, 3:5 for GRS 1915105, etc.).
The high frequencies of the oscillations observed from black hole sources with dynamically measured masses demonstrate that they originate in regions very close to the black hole horizons. In fact, requiring the frequency of the 450 Hz oscillation observed from GRO J165540 to be limited by the azimuthal frequency at the ISCO necessitates a spining black hole with a Kerr spin parameter Strohmayer01 . Moreover, the frequencies of the observed oscillations are roughly inversely proportional to the black holes masses, as one would expect if they were associated to dynamical frequencies near the innermost stable circular orbit Abramowicz04 .
As in the case of neutron stars, using black hole quasi-periodic oscillations to probe directly strong gravitational fields is hampered by the lack of a firm understanding of the physical mechanism that is producing them. In one interpretation, they are associated with linear oscillatory modes that are trapped just outside the radius of the innermost stable circular orbit (for reviews see Wagoner99 , Kato01 , Nowak01 ). The frequencies of these modes depend primarily on the mass and spin of the black hole. Identifying the two observed oscillations with the lowest order linear modes, therefore, leads to two pairs of values for the mass and spin of the black hole (depending on which oscillation is identified with which mode). For example, for the case of the black hole GRO J165540, one of the inferred pairs of values agrees with the dynamically measured mass of the black hole of and results in an estimated value of the black hole spin of (Figure 12 and Wagoner01 ). Although compelling, this interpretation leaves to coincidence the fact that the ratios of the oscillation frequencies are approximately equal to ratios of small integers.
In an alternate model, the oscillations are assumed to be excited in regions of the accretion disks where two of the dynamical frequencies are in parametric resonance, i.e., their ratios are equal to ratios of small integers Abramowicz02 . In this case, the frequencies of the oscillations depend on the mass and spin of the black hole as well as on the radius at which the resonance occurs. As a result, the observation of two oscillations from any given source does not lead to a unique measurement of its mass and spin, but rather to a families of solutions. For example, identifying the frequencies of the two oscillations observed from GRO J165540 as a 3:2, a 3:1, or a 2:1 resonance between the Keplerian and the periastron precession frequencies at any radius in the accretion disk leads to three family of solutions, as shown in Figure 12. The dynamically measured mass of the black hole then picks only two of the possible families of solutions and leads to a smaller value for the inferred spin.
Future observations of accreting neutron stars and black holes with upcoming missions that will have fast timing capabilities, such as XEUS XEUS , will be able to discover a large spectrum of quasi-periodic oscillations from each source. Such observations will constrain significantly the underlying physical model for these oscillations, which remains the most important source of uncertainty in using fast variability phenomena in probing strong gravitational fields.
5 The Need for a Theoretical Framework for Strong-Field Gravity Tests
Modern observations of black holes and neutron stars in the galaxy provide ample opportunities for testing the predictions of general relativity in the strong field regime, as discussed in the previous section. In several cases, astrophysical complications make such studies strongly dependent on model assumptions. This will be remedied in the near future, with the anticipated advances in the observational techniques and in the theoretical modeling of the various astrophysical phenomena. A second difficult hurdle, however, in performing quantitative tests of gravity with compact objects will be the lack of a parametric extension to General Relativity, i.e., the equivalent of the PPN formalism, that is suitable for calculations in the strong-field regime.
In the past, bona fide tests of strong-field general relativity have been performed using particular parametric extensions to the Einstein–Hilbert action. This appears a priori to be a reasonable approach for a number of reasons. First, deriving the parametric field equations from a Lagrangian action ensures that fundamental symmetries and conservation laws are obeyed. Second, the parametric Lagrangian action can be used over the entire range of field strengths available to an observer and, therefore, even tests of General Relativity in the weak-field limit (i.e., with the PPN formalism) can be translated into constraints on the parameters of the action. This is often important, when strong-field tests lead to degenerate constraints between different parameters. Finally, phenomenological Lagrangian extensions can be motivated by ideas of quantum gravity and string theory and, potentially, help constrain the fundamental scales of such theories. There are, however, several issues that need to be settled before any such parametric extension of the Einstein–Hilbert action can become a useful theoretical framework for strong-field gravity tests (see also Sotiriou08  and references therein).
First, gravity is highly non-linear and strong-field phenomena often show a non-perturbative dependence on small changes to the theory. – I will illustrate this with scalar-tensor theories that result from adding a minimally coupled scalar field to the Ricci curvature in the action. Such fields have been studied for more than 40 years in the form of Brans–Dicke gravity Will93  and have been recently invoked as alternatives to a cosmological constant for modeling the acceleration of the universe Peebles03 . In the context of compact-object astrophysics, constraints on the relative contribution of scalar fields coupled in different ways to the metric have been obtained from observations of the orbital decay of double neutron stars Will89 , Damour93  and compact X-ray binaries Will89 , Psaltis07a . More recently, similar constraints on scalar extensions to General Relativity have been placed using the observation of redshifted lines from an X-ray burster DeDeo03  and of quasi-periodic oscillations observed in accreting neutron stars DeDeo07 . The oscillatory modes of neutron stars in such theories and the prospect of constraining them using gravitational wave signatures have also been studied Sotani04 , Sotani05 .
The general form of the Lagrangian of a scalar-tensor theory is given, in the appropriate frame, by the Bregmann-Wagoner action (see Will93  for details)
where and are two arbitrary functions, and is the action for the matter field . In the strong-field regime, the potential term in the action (22) is typically negligible and is set to zero. On the other hand, the functional form of the coupling function can be parametrized to measure deviations from General Relativity.
Damour and Esposito-Farese Damour93  considered a second-order parametric form
with a background cosmological value for the scalar field and and the two parameters of the theory to be constrained by observations. The linear term, parametrized by , can be best constrained with weak-field tests. On the other hand, constraining significantly the non-linear term, parametrized by , requires strong-field phenomena, such as those found around neutron stars. Indeed, the two main PPN parameters for such a scalar-tensor theory are
The deviation of the PPN parameters from the general relativistic values is of second order in and of third order in the product . As a result, a very good limit on the parameter renders the parameter practically unconstrainable by weak-field tests.
The study of Damour and Esposito-Farese Damour93  revealed one of the main reasons that necessitate careful theoretical studies of possible extensions of General Relativity that are suitable for strong-field tests. The order of a term added to the Lagrangian action of the gravitational field is not necessarily a good estimate of the expected magnitude of the observable effects introduced by this additional term. For example, because of the non-linear coupling between the scalar field and matter introduced by the coupling function (23), the deviation from general relativistic predictions is not perturbative. For values of less that about , it becomes energetically favorable for neutron stars to become “scalarized”, with properties that differ significantly from their general relativistic counterparts Damour93 . Such non-perturbative effects make quantitative tests of strong-field gravity possible even when the astrophysical complications are only marginally understood.
A similar situation, albeit in the opposite regime, arises in an extended gravity theory in which a term proportional to the inverse of the Ricci scalar curvature, , is added to the Einstein–Hilbert action in order to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe Carroll04 . Although one would expect that such an addition can only affect gravitational fields that are extremely weak, it turns out that it also alters to zeroth order the post-Newtonian parameter and can, therefore, be excluded by simple solar-system tests Chiba03 .
Second, Lagrangian extensions of General Relativity often suffer from serious problems with instabilities. – This issue can be understood by considering a Lagrangian action that includes terms of second order in the Ricci scalar, i.e., , as well as the terms of similar order that can be constructed with the Ricci and Riemann tensors. For the sake of the argument, I will consider here the parametric Lagrangian
with , , and the three parameters of the theory. Such terms arise naturally as high-order corrections in quantum gravity and string theory and their relative importance increases with the curvature of the metric Donoghue94 , Burgess04 . They have also been invoked as alternatives to the inflation paradigm for the early expansion of the universe Starobinski80 . The predictions for astrophysical objects of extended gravity theories that incorporate high-order terms have been reported only for a few limited cases in the literature. The dependence of the stellar properties on terms in the action has been studied by Parker and Simon Parker93 , who simply derived the generalized Tolmann–Oppenheimer–Volkoff equation without solving it, and by Barraco and Hamity Barraco98  who attempted to solve the problem using a perturbation analysis (unfortunately, this last study suffers from a large number of errors).
This second-order gravity theory has a number of unappealing properties (see discussion in Simon90 , Simon91 ). Classically, a high-order gravity theory requires more than two boundary conditions, which is a fact that appears to be incompatible with all other physical theories. Quantum mechanically, second-order gravity theories lead to unstable vacuum solutions. Both these phenomena could be artifacts of the possibility that the action (25) may arise as a low-energy expansion of a non-local Lagrangian that is fundamentally of second order Simon90 , Simon91 . Phenomenologically speaking, these problems can be overcome by requiring the field equations to be of second order, when extremizing the action. This procedure leads to a generalized, high-order gravity theory that remains consistent with classical expectations and is stable quantum-mechanically (according to the procedure outlined in Simon90 , Simon91 ), but requires a different than usual derivation of the field equations DeDeo08 .
Even when these issues are being taken into account, the terms proportional to and lead to field equations with solutions that suffer from the Ostrogradski instability Woodard06 . And even if these terms are dropped and only actions that are generic function of only the Ricci scalar are considered, then the resulting solutions for the expansion of the universe Dolgov03  and for spherically symmetric stars Seifert07  can be violently unstable, depending on the sign of the second-order term.
A potential resolution of several of these problems in theories with high-order terms in the action appears to be offered by the Palatini formalism. In this approach, the field equations are derived by extremizing the action under variations in the metric and the connection, which is considered as an independent field Sotiriou07 . For the simple Einstein–Hilbert action, both approaches are equivalent and give rise to the equations of general relativity; when the action has non-linear terms in , the two approaches diverge. Unfortunately, the Palatini formalism leads to equations that cannot handle in general the transition across the surface layer of a star to the matter-free space outside it, and is therefore not a viable alternative Barausse07 .
Finally, it is crucial that we identify the astrophysical phenomena that can be used in testing particular aspects of strong-field gravity. For example, in the case of the classical tests of General Relativity, it is easy to show that the deflection of light during a solar eclipse and the Shapiro time delay depend on one (and the same) component of the metric of the Sun (i.e., on the PPN parameter ). Therefore, they do not provide independent tests of General Relativity (as long as we accept the validity of the equivalence principle). On the other hand, the perihelion precession of Mercury and the gravitational redshift depend on the other component of the metric (i.e., on the PPN parameter ) and, therefore, provide complementary tests of the theory. Understanding such degeneracies is an important component of performing tests of gravity theories.
In the case of strong gravitational fields, this issue can be illustrated again by studying the high-order Lagrangian action (25) in the metric formalism (see also Burgess04 ). In principle, as the strength of the gravitational field increases, the terms that are of second-order in the Ricci scalar become more important and, therefore, affect the observable properties of neutron stars and black holes. However, because of the Gauss-Bonnet identity,
variations, with respect to the metric, of the term proportional to in Equation (25) can be expressed as variations of the terms proportional to and . Therefore, for all non-quantum gravity tests, the predictions of the theory described by the Lagrangian action (25) are identical to those of the Lagrangian
As a result, astrophysical tests that do not invoke quantum-gravity effects can only constrain a particular combination of the parameters, i.e., and . It is only through phenomena related to quantum gravity, such as the evaporation of black holes, that the parameter may be constrained.
When the spacetime is isotropic and homogeneous, as in the case of tests using the cosmic evolution of the scale factor, an additional identity is satisfied, i.e.,
This implies that, for cosmological tests, the predictions of the theory described by the Lagrangian action (25) are identical to those of the Lagrangian
As a result, such cosmological tests of gravity can only constrain a particular combination of the parameters, i.e., .
The parameters and can be independently constrained using observations of spacetimes that are strongly curved but are not isotropic and homogeneous, such as those found in the vicinities of black holes and neutron stars. Measuring the properties of neutron stars, such as their radii, maximum masses and maximum spins, which require the solution of the field equations in the presence of matter, will provide independent constraints on the combination of parameters and . However, one can show that in absence of matter, the external spacetime of a black hole, as given by the solution to Einstein’s field equation, is also one (but not necessarily the only) solution of the parametric field equation that arises from the Lagrangian action (25). As a result, tests that involve black holes will probably be inadequate in distinguishing between the particular theory described by Equation (25) and general relativity Psaltis07b .
This is, in fact, a general problem of using astrophysical observations of black holes to test General Relativity in the strong-field regime. The Kerr solution is not unique to general relativity Psaltis07b . For example, there is strong analytical Thorne71 , Bekenstein72 , Hawking72  and numerical evidence Scheel95  that, in Brans–Dicke scalar-tensor gravity theories, the end product of the collapse of a stellar configuration is a black hole described by the same Kerr solution as in Einstein’s theory. The same appears to be true in several other theories generated by adding additional degrees of freedom to Einstein’s gravity; the only vacuum solutions that are astrophysically relevant are those described by the Kerr metric Psaltis07b . Until a counter-example is discovered, studies of the strong gravitational fields found in the vicinities of black holes can be performed only within phenomenological frameworks, such as those involving multipole expansions of the Schwarzschild and Kerr metrics Ryan95 , Collins04 , Glampedakis06 .
To date, it has only been possible to test quantitatively the predictions of General Relativity in the strong-field regime using observations of neutron stars, as I will discuss in the following section. In all cases, the general relativistic predictions were contrasted to those of scalar-tensor gravity, with Einstein’s theory passing all the tests with flying colors.
6 Current Tests of Strong-Field Gravity with Neutron Stars
Performing tests of strong-field gravity with neutron stars requires knowledge of the equation of state of neutron-star matter to a degree better than the required precision of the gravitational test. This appears a priori to be a serious hurdle given the wide range of predictions of equally plausible theories of neutron-star matter (see Lattimer01  for a recent compilation). It is easy to show, however, that current uncertainties in our modeling of the properties of ultra-dense matter do not preclude significant constraints on the strong-field behavior of gravity DeDeo03 .
During the last three decades, neutron-star models have been calculated for a variety of gravity theories (see Will93  and references therein) and were invariably different, both in size and in allowed mass, than their general relativistic counterparts. As an example, Figure 13 shows neutron-star models calculated in three representative theories that cannot be excluded by current tests that do not involve neutron stars. In the figure, the shaded areas represent the uncertainty introduced by the unknown equation of state of neutron-star matter (not including quark stars or large neutron stars with condensates). Clearly, the deviations in neutron-star properties from the predictions of General Relativity for these theories (that are still consistent with weak-field tests) are larger than the uncertainty introduced by the unknown equation of state of neutron-star matter.
This is a direct consequence of the fact that the curvature around a neutron star is larger by orders of magnitude compared to the curvature probed by solar-system tests, whereas the density inside the neutron star is larger by only an order of magnitude compared to the densities probed by nuclear scattering data that are used to constrain the equation of state. Given that the current values of the post-Newtonian parameters are known from weak-field tests to within , it is reasonable that deviations from general relativity can be hidden in the weak-field limit but may become dominant as the curvature is increased by more than ten orders of magnitude. Neutron stars can indeed be used in testing the strong-field behavior of a gravity theory.
6.1 Brans–Dicke gravity and the orbital decay of binary systems with neutron stars
Binary stellar systems that are currently known to harbor at least one neutron star have orbital separations that are too large to be used in probing directly strong gravitational fields. Even at that separation, however, the orbital evolution of the binary system caused by the emission of gravitational waves is affected, in a scalar-tensor theory, by the coupling of matter to the scalar field, which occurs in a strong gravitational field. This manifests itself as a violation of the strong equivalence principle, with many observable consequences such as the rapid decay of the orbit due to emission of dipole radiation Eardley75 , Will89 . The various quantitative tests of strong-field gravity using binary systems with radio pulsars have been reviewed in detail elsewhere Stairs03 . Here, I will focus only on tests that involve the orbital period evolution of the binary systems.
The best studied binaries with compact objects are the double neutron stars, with the Hulse–Taylor pulsar (PSR 191316) as the prototypical case. Unfortunately, in all double neutron-star systems, the masses of the two members of the binary are surprisingly similar Thorsett99  and this severely limits the prospects of placing strong constraints on the dipole radiation from them. Indeed, the magnitude of dipole radiation depends on the difference of the sensitivities between the two members of the binaries, and for neutron stars the sensitivities depend primarily on their masses. The resulting constraint imposed on the Brans–Dicke parameter by the Hulse–Taylor pulsar is significantly smaller than the limit set by the Cassini mission Bertotti03 .
The constraint is significantly improved when studying binary systems in which only one of the two stars is a neutron star. There are several known neutron star-white dwarf binaries that are suitable for this purpose, in which the neutron stars appear as radio pulsars (e.g., PSR B065564 Damour96 ; PSR J04374715 vanStraten01 ), as millisecond accreting X-ray pulsars (e.g., XTE J1808456 Psaltis07a ), or as non-pulsing X-ray sources (e.g., 4U 182030 Will89 ). In the last two cases, the evolution of the binary orbit is also affected significantly by mass transfer from the companion star to the neutron star. However, for each value of the Brans–Dicke parameter , there is a minimum absolute value for the rate of evolution of the orbital period (see Figure 14 and Psaltis07a ). An accurate measurement of the orbital period derivative in any of these systems offers, therefore, the potential of placing a lower limit on the Brans–Dicke parameter. Because of the astrophysical complications introduced by mass transfer, the optimal constraint on is of order in this method, which is comparable to the Cassini limit.
6.2 Second-order scalar-tensor gravity and radio pulsars
As discussed in the previous section, observations of strong-field phenomena provide constraints on Brans–Dicke scalar-tensor gravity, which are, however, at most comparable to those of solar system tests. This is true because the fractional deviation of a Brans–Dicke theory from General Relativity is of order , both for weak and strong gravitational fields, and the solar-system tests have superb accuracy. On the other hand, a scalar-tensor theory with a second-order coupling (e.g., the one arising from the action (22) with the coupling (23)) allows for large deviations in the strong-field regime while being consistent with the weak-field limits Damour93 , Damour96 .
In the case of neutron stars, the second-order scalar-tensor theory described by Damour and Esposito-Farese Damour93  leads to a non-perturbative effect known as spontaneous scalarization (similar to the spontaneous magnetization in ferromagnetism). For significantly large negative values of the parameter , there is a range of neutron-star masses for which it becomes energetically favorable for the scalar field to acquire high values inside the neutron star and affect significantly its structure compared to the general relativistic predictions. An example of the mass-radius relation for neutron stars in a second-order scalar-tensor theory with is shown in Figure 13.
The properties and stability of scalarized neutron stars have been studied extensively in the literature Damour93 , Salgado98 , Harada98 . For the purposes of tests of strong-field gravity, the coupling of matter with the gravitational field and the external spacetimes of scalar stars are so different compared to their general relativistic counterparts that large negative values of can be firmly excluded with current observations of binary stellar systems that harbor radio pulsars. Figure 15 shows the current constraints on the two parameters and of the theory imposed by the timing observations of the Hulse–Taylor pulsar (PSR J191316), of a pulsar in an asymmetric binary with a white dwarf (PSR J11416545), and of two other pulsars (PSR J07373079 and PSR B153412). The best weak-field limits, including those imposed by the Cassini mission, are also shown for comparison Damour07 .
As expected, weak-field tests bound significantly the value of the parameter , leaving the parameter largely unconstrained. Between the binary systems with radio pulsars, the one with the white-dwarf companion provides the most stringent constraints because the large asymmetry between the two compact object leads to the prediction of strong dipole gravitational radiation that can be excluded observationally. Finally, for large negative values of the parameter , the scalarization of the neutron stars makes the predictions of the theory incompatible with observations.
6.3 Second-order scalar-tensor gravity and X-ray observations of accreting neutron stars
The quantitative features of a number of phenomena observed in the X-rays from accreting neutron stars depend strongly on their masses and radii, as discussed in 3. The constraints imposed by two of these phenomena on the parameters of the second-order scalar-tensor gravity of Damour and Esposito-Farese Damour93  have been studied recently DeDeo03 , DeDeo07 .
The first phenomenon is the observation of gravitationally redshifted atomic lines during X-ray bursts from the source EXO 074856 Cottam02 . Figure 16 shows the values of the gravitational redshift from the surface of neutron stars with different masses, in second-order scalar-tensor theories with different values of the parameter DeDeo03 . In this calculation, the parameter was set to zero and the neutron-star structure was calculated using the equation of state U Cook94 . The hatch-filled area corresponds to neutron-star masses that are unacceptable for each value of the parameter , while the thick curve separates the scalarized stars from the general relativistic counterparts.
A dynamical measurement of the mass of EXO 074856 can rule out the possibility that the neutron star in this source is scalarized, because scalarized stars have very different surface redshifts compared to the general relativistic stars of the same mass. The source EXO 074856 lies in an eclipsing binary system which makes it a prime candidate for a dynamical mass measurement. In the absence of such a measurement, however, a limit on the parameter can be placed under the astrophysical constraint that the baryonic mass of the neutron stars is larger than . This is a reasonable assumption, given that a progenitor core of a lower mass would not have collapsed to form a neutron star. Combining this constraint with the measured redshift of leads to a limit on the parameter , which depends only weakly on the assumed equation of state of neutron-star matter DeDeo03 .
A second set of phenomena that can lead to strong-field tests of gravity are the fast quasi-periodic oscillations observed from many bright accreting neutron stars vanderKlis06 . The highest known frequency of such an oscillations is 1330 Hz, observed from the source 4U 163653 and corresponds to the Keplerian frequency of the innermost stable circular orbit of a slowly spinning neutron star. Figure 17 shows the maximum Keplerian frequency outside a neutron star in the second-order scalar tensor theory, for different values of the parameter . For small stellar masses, the limiting frequency is achieved at the surface of the star, whereas for large stellar masses, the limiting frequency is reached at the innermost stable circular orbit. This figure shows that scalarized stars allow for higher frequencies than their general relativistic counterparts. Requiring, therefore, the observed oscillation frequency to be smaller than the highest Keplerian frequency of a stable orbit outside the compact object cannot be used to constrain the parameters of this theory. On the other hand, the correlations between the various dynamical frequencies outside the compact object depend strongly on the parameter and hence the gravity theory can be constrained given a particular model for the oscillations DeDeo07 .
7 Going Beyond Einstein
Testing General Relativity in the strong-field regime with neutron stars and black holes will require advanced observatories that will be able to resolve various phenomena in the characteristic energy and time-scales in which they occur. The two parameters used to quantify the strength of a gravitational field in Section 3.1 are also useful in discussion the specifications required by such future observatories.
The potential and the curvature in a gravitational field are related directly to the characteristic energy- and time-scales, respectively, that need to be resolved in order for an observation to be able to probe a particular region of the parameter space. The potential gives directly the gravitational redshift according to
the measurement of which is the goal of spectroscopic observations; for weak gravitational fields . At the same time, the curvature is directly related to the dynamical timescale in the same region of a gravitational field by
As shown in Figure 18, only observatories with excellent spectroscopic and millisecond timing capabilities will be able to resolve phenomena that occur in the strongest gravitational fields found in astrophysics, i.e., those in the vicinities of neutron stars and stellar-mass black holes.
One of the most promising avenues towards testing strong-field general relativity is via the detection of the gravitational waves emitted during the coalescence of compact objects. In the simple case in which two compact objects of mass are orbiting each other in circular orbits with separation , slowly approaching because of the emission of gravitational waves, the characteristic period of the gravitational wave is half of the orbital period and, therefore, is related to the spacetime curvature by
At the same time, the strain detected by an observatory on Earth for a gravitational wave emitted by such a source placed at a distance , is Flanagan05 
Given the distance to a source and the measurement of a strain, the curvature of the gravitational field probed is
The sensitivity of each detector of gravitational waves depends strongly on the period of the wave. Using equations (32) and (34), the sensitivity curve of a detector can be converted into a region of the parameter space that can be probed, given the distance to the source. This is shown in Figure 19 for the advanced LIGO and LISA, for an assumed source distance of 1 Mpc. Gravitational waves detected by LISA will probe the same curvatures as current tests of General Relativity but significantly larger potentials. On the other hand, gravitational waves detected by the advanced LIGO have the potential of probing directly the strongest gravitational fields found around astrophysical objects.
In the near future, a number of observatories will exploit new techniques and open new horizons in gravitational physics by exploring the strong-field region of the parameter space shown in Figure 18. Observations with the Square Kilometre Array SKA  may lead to the discovery of the most optimal binary systems for strong-field gravity tests with pulsar timing, in which a pulsar is orbiting a black hole Kramer05 . High energy observations of black holes and neutron stars with Constellation-X ConX  and XEUS XEUS  will detect highly redshifted atomic lines and measure their rapid variability properties. Finally, gravitational wave observatories, either from the ground (such as LIGO LIGO , GEO600 GEO , TAMA300 TAMA , and VIRGO VIRGO ) or from space (such as LISA LISA ) will detect directly for the first time one of the most remarkable predictions of General Relativity, the generation of gravitational waves from orbiting compact objects and black hole ringing.
It is my great pleasure to acknowledge the many fruitful discussions and collaborations with a number of people that have shaped my ideas on astrophysical tests of strong-field gravity. In particular, I thank T. Belloni, D. Chakrabarty, S. DeDeo, F. Lamb, C. Miller, R. Narayan, J. McClintock, F. Özel, and M. van der Klis. I am indebted to S. DeDeo and F. Özel for helping me settle on and understand the defition of strong-field gravity. I am also grateful to G. Esposito-Farése, T. Johanssen, J. McClintock, F. Özel, and C. Reynolds for their detailed comments that helped me greatly improve the presentation of this review.
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