Astronomers are about to photograph a black hole

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The effort to better understand Black Hole will be ramped up in April, when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) attempts to capture our first image of a Black Hole and its event horizon.

The target of the EHT is none other than Sagittarius A*, the monster black hole that lies in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Though the EHT will spend 10 days gathering the data, the actual image won’t be finished processing and available until 2018.

The EHT includes super-stars of the astronomy world like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array(ALMA) as well as lesser known ‘scopes like the South Pole Telescope (SPT.) Advances in very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) have made it possible to connect all these telescopes together so that they act like one big ‘scope the size of Earth.

The combined power of all these telescopes is essential because even though the EHT’s target, Sagittarius A*, has over 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it’s 26,000 light years away from Earth. It’s also only about 20 million km across. Huge but tiny.

The EHT is impressive for a number of reasons. In order to function, each of the component telescopes is calibrated with an atomic clock. These clocks keep time to an accuracy of about a trillionth of a second per second.

The effort requires an army of hard drives, all of which will be transported via jet-liner to the Haystack Observatory at MIT for processing. That processing requires what’s called a grid computer, which is a sort of virtual super-computer comprised of 800 CPUs.

The power of the EHT will help us clarify our understanding of black holes enormously. If we see what we think we’ll see, it confirms Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, a theory which has been confirmed observationally over and over. However, if EHT sees something else, something we didn’t expect at all, then that means Einstein’s General Relativity got it wrong. Not only that, but it means we don’t really understand gravity.

In physics circles they say that it’s never smart to bet against Einstein. He’s been proven right time and time again. To find out if he was right again, we’ll have to wait until 2018.

 

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