Astronomers switch on globe-spanning Event Horizon Telescope

You’ve probably seen many images over the years that represent a black hole, but none of them are actually images of a real black hole (including the one above). They’re all artist’s renderings, or possibly a real image of the superheated gas around a black hole. Astronomers around the world have banded together and flipped the switch on a project called the Event Horizon Telescope. The international team hopes they’ll generate the first ever image of a black hole by linking up the data from radio telescopes all over the world.

There are a number of problems that have prevented scientists from seeing a black hole. For one, there aren’t any close by, which is actually a good thing if you don’t like being torn apart by tidal forces and sucked into oblivion. Black holes are also physically smaller than you’d expect, despite their high mass. It’s the high density that gives a black hole such incredible gravitational pull. There’s also the matter of all the electromagnetic waves being pulled into a black hole instead of emitted where we can see them.

Astronomers will use the Event Horizon Telescope to look at two different supermassive black holes. One is the black hole in the center of our own galaxy, which is known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A Star”). The other is at the center of a nearby galaxy called M87, also known as Virgo A. It’s one of the largest galaxies in the local universe, and is famous for having a gigantic jet of matter blasting out from the black hole at its center.

The jet of matter ejected from M87 by its black hole.

The Event Horizon Telescope consists of eight radio telescopes around the world, all of which will cooperate by observing the same objects. Using radio frequencies will allow astronomers to peer through the shroud of dust and gas that usually obscures black holes. The target is a halo of superheated gas believed to circulate above the event horizon as it’s pulled in. Just one telescope wouldn’t be able to pull in enough clean data to produce an image of that halo, but a network of telescopes spanning the globe might.

Observations for this project began on April 4th and will run through April 14th. The data acquired by each site will then be transported to labs at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and MIT’s Haystack Observatory. Combining the data should help cancel out the noise and reinforce the event horizon halo’s signal. That process is likely to take several months, though.

So, in a few months, we could finally see what the event horizon of a black hole looks like. This may help answer a number of long-standing questions about physics and the nature of galactic evolution.

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