(ORDO NEWS) — Not so long ago, the idea of photographing a black hole was as dubious as taking a photograph of a unicorn. Now scientists have not one, but two images of a pair of different supermassive black holes.
“Now there is no doubt that we have seen black holes for the first time,” said Shep Doleman, founding director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, an international team of more than 100 scientists led by the Harvard Center for Astrophysics and the Smithsonian Institution. “This is the dawn of a new era in astronomy.”
In this new era, scientists can prove or disprove Einstein’s longstanding theories of gravity and relativity, or find Earth 2.0.
Photographing a black hole is even harder than it looks. To image such distant objects, “you need a telescope the size of Earth,” says Kari Haworth, engineer and chief technology officer at the Center for Astrophysics.
Each team had to take a picture at exactly the same time. Since black holes absorb everything that is too close, even light, they cannot be seen. But their powerful gravity pulls and compresses nearby light and debris, creating a spinning gaseous vortex teeming with energy and light.
This radiance can be seen and photographed. The resulting photograph, obtained by the EHT team, is a composite of images taken by each telescope and stacked one on top of the other.
To combine all this data – and this is light captured at a very precise moment in time – scientists had to take another strange step. Each telescope’s team froze their light, stored it on hard drives (it’s too big to transmit over the Internet), and flew it by plane to one central location.
M87, the first stellar-processed black hole, is about 1,000 times the size of the Sagittarius A star and much more stable, but the images came out nearly identical, which was a game-changer for EHT and Albert Einstein.
Our galaxy’s black hole is more fussy, restless, like a child, and harder to get a clear picture of what is constantly changing, says astrophysicist Paul Thide. In addition, there is a layer of cosmic particles between us and the star Sagittarius A, which blurs the image a little.
The way black holes are described suggests that they are voracious monsters that suck up everything in space like a drain in a bathroom.
This is not entirely true. While they are the most powerful objects in the universe – according to Doleman, a black hole formed by the Earth’s fold in half could power Manhattan for a year – they don’t swallow entire galaxies, they just warp space-time and dislodge objects from their intended paths.
This is good news, as the EHT team suspects that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of every galaxy. But even with these new images, Thide said, “we know next to nothing about them.” (When asked why black holes are donut-shaped, he replied: “Because they are delicious.”)
To better understand, Doleman wants to build an even bigger telescope by installing another imaging device on a satellite orbiting the Earth. He also hopes to make something more exciting than black hole photography: a movie about a black hole.
“If we could time the orbits of matter, that would be a completely different test of Einstein’s theory,” he said.
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