Scientists attempting to peer into a black hole

Scientists attempting to peer into a black hole

Massive data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is being sent to two supercomputers in the United States and Germany to help scientists determine if they have captured the very first image of a black hole.

The EHT is a highly ambitious project that links telescopes around Earth to create one planet-sized telescope. It is so efficient that it can count the stitches on a baseball from an altitude of 8,000 miles.

Thus far, scientists have not been able to capture a clear image of any black hole. However, the EHT is expected to be able to provide a clear picture showing a black hole’s surrounding ring as well as its shadow.

Scientists know that an enormous black hole dubbed Sagittarius A* exists at the center of our galaxy – the Milky Way. The new project aims to capture its clear image.

Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT Haystack, said, “With the array we have, we should have plenty of sensitivity. If things went well, we should have clear detections on most of the baselines at least, but we won’t know for certain until the data get back here.”

In addition to Sagittarius A*, scientists involved in the EHT project will attempt to capture a picture of a second enormous black hole in the neighboring galaxy M87.

"Instead of building a telescope so big that it would probably collapse under its own weight, we combined eight observatories like the pieces of a giant mirror," said Michael Bremer, an astronomer at the International

Research Institute for Radio Astronomy (IRAM) and a project manager for the Event Horizon Telescope.

"This gave us a virtual telescope as big as Earth—about 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) is diameter," he told AFP.

The bigger the telescope, the finer the resolution and level of detail.

The targeted supermassive black hole is hidden in plain sight, lurking in the centre of the Milky Way in a region called the Sagittarius constellation, some 26,000 light years from Earth.

Dubbed Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short), the gravity- and light-sucking monster weighs as much as four million Suns.

Theoretical astronomy tells us when a black hole absorbs matter—planets, debris, anything that comes too close—a brief flash of light is visible.

No going back

Black holes also have a boundary, called an event horizon.

The British astronomer Stephen Hawking has famously compared crossing this boundary to going over Niagra Falls in a canoe: if you are above the falls, it is still possible to escape if you paddle hard enough.
Once you tip over the edge, however, there's no going back.

The Event Horizon Telescope radio-dish network is designed to detect the light cast-off when object disappear across that boundary.

"For the first time in our history, we have the technological capacity to observe black holes in detail," said Bremer.

The virtual telescope trained on the middle of the Milky Way is powerful enough to spot a golf ball on the Moon, he said.

The 30-metre IRAM telescope, located in the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains, is the only European observatory taking part in the international effort.

Other telescopes contributing to the project include the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in the desert of northern Chile.