The European Southern Observatory is taking a leaf out of NASA’s playbook: it’s teasing a ‘huge announcement’ next week. And while it hasn’t said what it is — it has revealed it will be the ‘first result from the Event Horizon Telescope’.
And that’s a dead giveaway.
The Event Horizon Telescope project has been peering through the mass of stars, dust and gas swirling around the center of our galaxy.
At its heart is Sagittarius A* — a supermassive black hole.
We know it’s there.
We’ve been watching the way it whips doomed stars around in elliptical loops with its immense gravity. We’ve even seen it swallowing clouds of superheated gas.
But actually picturing it will prove beyond all doubt that the monsters that haunted Albert Einstein are real.
NUMBER OF THE BEAST
It may be four million times heavier than our own Sun. But Sagittarius A* is 26,000 light years away.
And it's wrapped in a dense blanket of spaghettified stuff.
But finely tuned radio telescopes may have finally filtered out all the accumulated ‘noise’ for a direct image of the black hole’s event horizon itself.
That’s the point of no return.
It’s where even light must succumb to the pull of gravity, and fall forever inward.
Photographing a black hole is … difficult.
They’re more than just black.
They absorb everything, including electromagnetic radiation.
That includes light, radio, X-ray and gamma rays.
So we’ll never be actually able to ‘see’ one.
But we will be able to observe the tipping point, the point at the very edge of the black hole where the last rays are able to escape.
And the silhouette of Sagittarius A*s black disc itself could well be burnt against the background of superheated plasma.
But capturing that particular point in space has involved an international effort, the development of new sensors and of new ways to filter the collected data to reveal exactly what’s there.
INTO THE ABYSS
At the heart of every galaxy is a supermassive black hole. It’s all part of the cycle of life and death on an interstellar scale.
This one is 26,000 light years away. Swirling around it are the billions of stars of our galaxy. At its core is a singularity millions of times heavier than that of the Sun.
This is what gives it such immense gravity that not even light can escape.
Supermassive black holes are unpredictable beasts. They can lie dormant for centuries before suddenly flaring up as a quasar, driving powerful jets of superheated subatomic particles into intergalactic space.
It will do this as it devours a nearby star, or pulls in one of the dense clouds of gas and dust swirling around it. These same clouds are blocking Sagittarius A from the view of optical telescopes. But some radio waves can pass through such obstacles unhindered.
“High resolution imaging of the event horizon also could improve our understanding of how the highly ordered Universe as described by Einstein meshes with the messy and chaotic cosmos of quantum mechanics — two systems for describing the physical world that are woefully incompatible on the smallest of scales,” the National Radio Astronomy Observatory said in 2016 abut the start of its own survey.
This story originally appeared in news.com.au.