Ever since first mentioned by Jon Michell in a letter to the Royal Society in 1783, black holes have captured the imagination of scientists, writers, filmmakers and other artists. Perhaps part of the allure is that these enigmatic objects have never actually been “seen”. But this could now be about to change as an international team of astronomers is connecting a number of telescopes on Earth in the hope of making the first ever image of a black hole.
Black holes are regions of space inside which the pull of gravity is so strong that nothing – not even light – can escape. Their existence was predicted mathematically by Karl Schwarzchild in 1915, as a solution to equations posed in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Astronomers have had circumstantial evidence for many decades that supermassive black holes – a million to a billion times more massive than our sun – lie at the hearts of massive galaxies. That’s because they can see the gravitational pull they have on stars orbiting around the galactic centre. When overfed with material from the surrounding galactic environment, they also eject detectable plumes or jets of plasma to speeds close to that of light. Last year, the LIGO experiment provided even more proof by famously detecting ripples in space-time caused by two medium-mass black holes that merged millions of years ago.
But while we now know that black holes exist, questions regarding their origin, evolution and influence in the universe remain at the forefront of modern astronomy.
Catching a tiny spot on the sky
On April 5-14 2017, the team behind the Event Horizon Telescope hopes to test the fundamental theories of black-hole physics by attempting to take the first ever image of a black hole’s event horizon (the point at which theory predicts nothing can escape). By connecting a global array of radio telescopes together to form the equivalent of a giant Earth-sized telescope – using a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry and Earth-aperture synthesis – scientists will peer into the heart of our Milky Way galaxy where a black hole that is 4m times more massive than our sun – Sagittarius A* – lurks.
Astronomers know there is a disk of dust and gas orbiting around the black hole. The path the light from this material takes will be distorted in the gravitational field of the black hole. Its brightness and colour are also expected to be altered in predictable ways. The tell-tale signature astronomers hope to see with the Event Horizon Telescope is a bright crescent shape rather than a disk. And they may even see the shadow of the black hole’s event horizon against the backdrop of this brightly shining swirling material.