Up Close and Personal Black Hole Images Coming in 2017

January 13, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's impression of a black hole

They will reveal the effects of gravity “on scales that have never been probed before.”

Let’s hope black holes are not camera shy!  Why?  Because scientists are promising to capture the best ever images of a black hole’s event horizon by 2017.  

By increasing the number of telescopes in the worldwide network used for the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), we will be able to attain an unprecedented 10-microarcsecond resolution.  An arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree, and to put that into perspective, a 15 micro-arcsecond is being able to see a golf ball on the surface of the moon.  An even higher resolution is needed for black holes because they are so compact and dark.

There are six telescopes in the EHT array that are already collecting data, and a total of nine will be contributing to the project by 2017.

The project will focus on the event horizon of black hole Sagittarius A*, located at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, and the black hole at the center of Messier 87 (M87), located roughly 53 million light years away.  However, they will be examining at least 10 massive black holes in total.  

SEE ALSO: Magnetic Field From a Black Hole Detected for First Time

Feryal Ӧzel, professor at the University of Arizona, wrote on the EHT website that the researchers will take a picture of the black holes at 1.3 and 0.85 millimeter (mm) wavelengths and look for a shadow, which is direct evidence of a black hole predicted by general relativity.

A shadow indicates the boundary or “event horizon” of a black hole — pretty much a point of no return. According to general relativity, gravity is so strong on the other side of this boundary that no material can escape.  Not even light.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has been tested using observations in Earth’s solar system, however there are very few environments in space as extreme as the one around a black hole.  The hope is that this new EHT will reveal the effects of gravity “on scales that have never been probed before,” said Ӧzel during the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).  “Get to the edge of a black hole, and the general relativity tests you can perform are qualitatively and quantitatively different.”

And not all black holes are the same.  Some are surrounded by a massive amount of accretion material — a disk of material emitting energy as it falls into the black hole — that radiates more light than the Milky Way, while others have barely any.  So the question is, what causes these differences?  

“Is it the magnetic field structure that is different? Is it the spin that is different? Or is it something else about the accretion flow that is different?” Ӧzel said during AAS.  “This will open a brand-new window into studying accretion physics.”

Much of the what’s in space continues to remain mysterious, but we may be able to discover a little more about one of the most complex entities in the universe.  I can’t wait to see the images EHT produces!

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