Astronomers have just concluded a groundbreaking series of observations. By linking radio telescopes across the world, the study attempted to take the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way.
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), as the project is called, has been in the news a lot lately and for good reason. It’s not only a daring scientific enterprise, but also a great statement about the collaborative and international nature of science. Linking the various telescopes was a technical and technological challenge, and while the results won’t come out for a while, the researchers are ecstatic about the achievement.
“Even if the first images are still crappy and washed out, we can already test for the first time some basic predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity in the extreme environment of a black hole,” radio astronomer Heino Falcke of Radboud University told National Geographic.
Researchers have conducted five nights of observations to hopefully deliver the closest look yet at a black hole. The team had to determine which nights had the best weather conditions globally to maximize the quality of the data. Not an easy task.
The network of radio-observatories acts like a single Earth-sized telescope that has the ability to resolve the event horizon of Sagittarius A*. The EHT also studied other sources like the supermassive black at the center of M87, a monster 4 billion times the mass of the Sun. That’s 1,000 times more than Sagittarius A*.
The event horizon is the edge of a black hole. Beyond it, nothing not even light can escape. These boundaries represent the most extreme environment in the universe and studying them might reveal something new about our understanding of physics.
“At the very heart of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, there is a notion that quantum mechanics and general relativity can be melded, that there is a grand, unified theory of fundamental concepts," Professor Gopal Narayan, from UMass Amherst, said in a statement. "The place to study that is at the event horizon of a black hole.”
"The data will likely be processed throughout the summer , then the EHT team will be analyzing the results through the fall," EHT Director Shep Doeleman previously told IFLScience.
Each observatory has produced so much data that it’s easier to fly there than to transmit it electronically. The data from the radio telescope in Antarctica won’t be able to reach the two data analysis centers (one in the States and one in Germany) until October when it's summer there and planes can fly out.
We’ll have to wait a while to see what the telescope was able to observe, but it will be worth it.
[H/T: National Geographic]