Astronomers to piece together first image of black hole

Black Hole
An artistic illustration of the black hole horizon at the center of our Galaxy © M. Moscibrodzka, T. Bronzwaar und H. Falcke, Radboud University

Thanks to the technological capabilities at our disposal, it will be possible for astronomers for the first ever time to piece together images of a black hole.

The first ever image of a black hole – in this case the one at the center of our galaxy – will be pieced together using the data collected by a network of telescopes stretching from Hawaii to Antarctica to Spain for five nights running. According to astronomers involved with the task, it will take months to develop the image, but if scientists succeed the results may help peel back mysteries about what the universe is made of and how it came into being.

Michael Bremer, an astronomer at the International Research Institute for Radio Astronomy (IRAM) and a project manager for the Event Horizon Telescope explains that instead of developing a single telescope that is capable of doing this, astronomers decided to go for the option of combining eight observatories to piece together a giant virtual telescope that is about 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) in diameter. The bigger the telescope, the finer the resolution and level of detail, astronomers explain.

The targeted supermassive black hole is hidden in plain sight, lurking in the centre of the Milky Way in a region called the Sagittarius constellation, some 26,000 light years from Earth. Dubbed Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short), the gravity- and light-sucking monster weighs as much as four million Suns. Theoretical astronomy tells us when a black hole absorbs matter – planets, debris, anything that comes too close – a brief flash of light is visible.

Black holes also have a boundary, called an event horizon. The Event Horizon Telescope radio-dish network is designed to detect the light cast-off when object disappear across that boundary.

The virtual telescope trained on the middle of the Milky Way is powerful enough to spot a golf ball on the Moon, he said. The 30-metre IRAM telescope, located in the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains, is the only European observatory taking part in the international effort.

Other telescopes contributing to the project include the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, and the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in the desert of northern Chile.

All the data – some 500 terabytes per station – will be collected and flown on jetliners to the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts, where it will be processed by supercomputers.

“The images will emerge as we combine all the data,” Bremer explained. “But we’re going to have to wait several months for the result.”