In April 2017, radio telescopes across the world were used together at the same time to perform an incredible feat: observing two supermassive black holes. This was the Event Horizon Telescope and the first results, published back in April, gave us the very first picture of one of these amazing objects.
The National Science Foundation has given the collaboration a $12.7 million grant to plan the next generation Event Horizon Telescope (ngEHT). The money will be used to enhance the existing design. Currently, the telescope is made by connecting existing facilities from around the world. This technique, which is known as interferometry, allows astronomers to have a radio telescope that is effectively the size of the Earth.
The grant will be used to study how to perfect this telescope. The team will consider locations around the world where seven or eight additional telescopes can be placed to fill out the virtual dish of the EHT. This should allow faster imaging speeds, which will lead to the first movie of the extreme gravity environment around a black hole.
“This really is, as we like to say, the end of the beginning or the beginning of the middle, and the best is really yet to come. We want to increase the capability of the EHT to go from still images to making movies. Imagine being able to see a black hole evolve in real-time,” Dr Shep Doeleman, founding director of the EHT, told IFLScience when the collaboration won the Breakthrough Awards earlier this month.
New telescopes and technology will allow scientists to study the black holes in more frequencies, greatly improve our understanding. Each observatory will have to be equipped with ways to record and transfer an incredible amount of data.
"Currently, the EHT records about 10 PetaBytes of data each session," team member Dr Vincent Fish said in a statement. "With planned higher data rates and the inclusion of new observatories, EHT data volumes could exceed 100 PetaBytes. Part of this project will be to investigate how to leverage advances in commercial technology to cost-effectively record and transport such a large volume of data."
But it’s not just hardware. It’s also software. The telescopes need to be linked in a way that all the signals are aligned to a fraction of a trillionth of a second. Meanwhile, the immense amount of data needs to be processed and analyzed, which poses a challenge. But the team is rising to it.
"Our own Milky Way is host to a supermassive black hole that evolves dramatically over the course of a night," Caltech's Dr Katie Bouman added. "We are developing new methods, which incorporate emerging ideas from machine learning and computational imaging, in order to make the very first movies of gas spiraling towards an event horizon."
The team observed the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way two years ago, but its mercurial character has made the analysis quite difficult. Doeleman confirms that they are working hard on it, so we might soon see an equally breathtaking image. As he said, the best is truly yet to come.