The world, it seems, is soon to see the first picture of a black hole. On Wednesday, astronomers across the globe will hold “six major press conferences” simultaneously to announce the first results of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which was designed precisely for that purpose.
It has been a long wait.
Of all the forces or objects in the Universe that we cannot see – including dark energy and dark matter – none has frustrated human curiosity so much as the invisible maws that shred and swallow stars like so many specks of dust.
Astronomers began speculating about these omnivorous “dark stars” in the 1700s, and since then indirect evidence has slowly accumulated.
“More than 50 years ago, scientists saw that there was something very bright at the centre of our galaxy,” Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency and an expert on black holes, told AFP.
The EHT that collected the data for the first-ever image is unlike any ever devised.
“Instead of constructing a giant telescope – which would collapse under its own weight — we combined several observatories as if they were fragments of a giant mirror,” Michael Bremer, an astronomer at the Institute for Millimetric Radio Astronomy in Grenoble, told AFP.
In April 2017, eight radio telescopes scattered across the globe – in Hawaii, Arizona, Spain, Mexico, Chile, and the South Pole – were trained on two black holes in very different corners of the Universe to collect data.
Studies that could be unveiled next week are likely to zoom in on one or the other.
Oddsmakers favour Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the centre of our own elliptical galaxy that first caught the eye of astronomers.
Sag A* has four million times the mass of our sun, which means that the black hole is generates is about 44 million kilometres across.
That may sound like a big target, but for the telescope array on Earth some 26,000 light-years (or 245 trillion kilometres) away, it’s like trying to photograph a golf ball on the Moon.
The other candidate is a monster black hole — 1,500 times more massive even than Sag A* — in an elliptical galaxy known as M87. It’s also a lot farther from Earth, but distance and size balance out, making it roughly as easy to pinpoint. AFP