Up to now, we have yet to see an actual black hole photo for ourselves. While it’s possible to take photographs of other space objects, black holes have notoriously been difficult to capture, with artist renderings being the only things that give us an idea of how these massive objects look like. But the Event Horizon Telescope hopes to make it a first in the world of space science, and take the first-ever photo of a black hole.
According to a report from TechCrunch, standard radio telescopes aren’t able to see Sagittarius A*, which is the closest black hole to Earth at about 26,000 light years away. As it is, that’s pretty far away from our home planet, though researchers have long been able to view it from telescopes, and therefore know where to look for it when trying to take that elusive black hole photo.
The operative word above is “elusive” – black holes are, as TechCrunch explained, very well-lit in the rim, as planets heat up while moving towards them, ready to be swallowed up. That allows astronomers to know where a black hole’s neighborhood is, but taking a good enough look to “snap” a photograph is the very tricky part.
That’s where the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, would come in. The EHT isn’t exactly unique – there are radio telescopes that are composed of several telescopes in what is called an array. But this telescope “takes (things) to the next level,” as it doesn’t combine individual telescopes, but rather combines various telescope arrays from all over the world forming an unusually powerful “mega-array” of telescopes.
— CS Monitor (@csmonitor) April 8, 2017
Aside from the world-renowned Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment in Chile, the Event Horizon Telescope also includes the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, and even the South Pole Telescope. That hints at some peculiar logistics, but that’s actually a good thing – with the distance between the different telescope arrays, that results in extremely high-resolution images, which may hopefully include the first black hole photo if all goes according to plan.
As mentioned above, artist renderings are all we have as our basis for what black holes probably look like. PBS NewsHour wrote that these renderings are usually represented by a large black circle “bending bright matter around it.” That’s the shape scientists are looking for when they use the EHT telescopes to try capturing a black hole photo – bright on the outside, progressively dimmer while moving inside.
“We’re trying to image a black hole, and those are some of the smallest objects in the universe,” said MIT astronomer Shep Doeleman in a previous interview with NewsHour. “So you need the biggest telescope to observe the smallest object.”
While the EHT is “purpose-built” for tracking down black holes, it’s going to be a tricky process, as black holes only take up a tiny part of space individually. Supermassive black holes can be found in the center of galaxies, but are traditionally hard to spot despite their size.
Since there is no direct proof that there is such a thing as black holes in the universe, the importance of the EHT project cannot be understated – a black hole photo would serve as the first truly direct proof of their existence. According to NewsHour, the closest anyone has come to finding such proof came last year, when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) made its groundbreaking gravitational wave discovery, with the waves emanating from a black hole collision from about 1.3 billion years ago.
The Event Horizon Telescope will be trying to take the first-ever black hole photo within the next few days, as TechCrunch noted it will be gathering observations from April 5 to April 14, provided weather remains good where the EHT’s telescope arrays are located.
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