For the first time, an image of a black hole has been unveiled by the Event Horizon Telescope, but it’s not what you might think. Here’s why.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
- Many more black hole photos will be coming in the months and years ahead.
- We’ll also see photos of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own galaxy.
- Einstein’s theories will continue to be refined and tested as we see more black holes.
We’ve seen humanity’s first photo of a black hole. Is the adventure over?
No. Far from it: “The researchers who captured the first-ever images of a black hole don’t plan to rest on their laurels,” Space.com said.
Astronomers agree that their work is far from done, project director Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard University said at a news conference Wednesday. It is actually only just beginning.
Scientists this week unveiled the first picture of a black hole, which was located at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the “nearby” Virgo galaxy cluster. It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.
Images came from a collection of eight telescopes around the world specifically designed to peer at black holes, part of the Event Horizon Telescope project. The telescopes are in Chile, Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, Spain and at the South Pole.
Though the image was a monumental achievement, Doeleman said the images could still be made sharper. And this could be done by adding more telescopes.
“We are embarking on a wonderful new series of putting new telescopes (at places around) the Earth, so if you add more telescopes, you build out that virtual mirror,” he said. “Even adding two or three more stations in just the right places will increase the fidelity of the image a lot.”
Also, the now-famous image unveiled Wednesday was of a black hole that’s in a galaxy far, far away. But astronomers also have taken photos of the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) that’s at the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy. The photos of this “nearby’ black hole have yet to be fully processed and thus have not been released to the public yet.
“We are very excited to work on the Sagittarius star,” Doeleman said. “We are not promising anything” but they hope to get the photos out very soon.
The European Southern Observatory has released the first-ever glimpse of Sagittarius A, the collapsed star is in the center of our Milk Way galaxy.
More news: The photos we saw this week were taken two years ago, in April 2017. Since then, astronomers also had a more recent photo shoot of both black holes in 2018, which included an additional ground-based telescope for even greater resolution.
In April 2017, “we had eight telescopes in six geographic locations, and in 2018, we added another telescope (in Greenland), which dramatically increased our coverage.”
So we also have the images taken in 2018 to look forward to seeing.
And looking ahead to future black hole photos: The team will also soon incorporate another dish into its black hole photo searches – one atop Kitt Peak, in southern Arizona.
An even more fanciful dream would be to add another telescope into the array from “off-planet.”
“World domination is not enough for us, we also want to go into space,” Doeleman said, adding that if a space-based radio telescope could be placed in orbit around the Earth, it would only increase our chances of taking high-quality images of black holes.
In addition, beyond improving telescopes, another research focus for scientists going forward will be to observe and understand the powerful jets of radiation and high-speed particles that are ejected from near black holes at close to the speed of light, according to Axios.
Sera Markoff, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam, told Axios that even with the new discovery, scientists are still limited in their understanding of black holes.
“I’m very interested in this interface with theoretical physics, and what are black holes really?,” she asked. “We know that Einstein was right in a general sense, but we don’t actually understand why gravity works the way it does on a really microscopic level. How does it function? Gravity is not a force like the others … general relatively explains how it works, but it doesn’t answer the why,” Markoff said.
Beyond the Event Horizon Telescope team, there are other project teams also looking at black holes, Space.com said.
These include NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array spacecraft, that’s hunting for supermassive black holes around the universe.
Space.com also said that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at Cal Tech has detected space-time ripples generated by mergers involving relatively small black holes.
And future projects – such as the European Space Agency’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna mission –will also seek out new black holes in the decades to come.
“The subject of black holes is (ready) for prime time,” Harvard’s Avi Loeb told Space.com.
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