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A newly discovered system of two white dwarf stars and a superdense pulsar-all packed within a space smaller than the Earth's orbit around the sun-is enabling astronomers to probe a range of cosmic mysteries, including the very nature of gravity itself.

The international team, which includes UBC astronomer Ingrid Stairs, reports their findings in the journal Nature on January 5.

Originally uncovered by an American graduate student using the National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope, the pulsar -- 4,200 light-years from Earth, spinning nearly 366 times per second -- was found to be in close orbit with a white dwarf star and the pair is in orbit with another, more distant white dwarf.

The three-body system is scientists' best opportunity yet to discover a violation of a key concept in Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity: the strong equivalence principle, which states that the effect of gravity on a body does not depend on the nature or internal structure of that body.

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