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Year 2018 Could Be the First Time We See a Black Hole

January 17, 2018

This year may be the first time we will see a Black Hole. Black Holes are massive entities in far outer Space so massive they collapse on themselves. The pull of gravity is so great within a Black Hole that all matter (including light) approaching a Black Hole is drawn into it never to be seen again. There are similar anomalies on our planet that act similar to this, which are tornado vortices and giant whirlpools at sea due to hurricanes.

But we have never seen a Black Hole.  All the pictures you have seen so far are computer-generated simulations or artists’ concepts.

The chore is being taken up by the Event Horizon Telescope team, which has aimed Radio Telescopes from eight different locations in the world toward the closest known Black Hole in existence, which lies in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy 26,000 light-years away.  It is named 'Sagittarius A' and has a mass 4 million times our Sun.

Since a Black Hole is obvious black (the “color” black is the absence of light) what they are hoping to see is the outline of the Event Horizon.  The Event Horizon is a radial boundary wherein whatever crosses this boundary will not to return since the gravity is too great past this point.  The Event Horizon can silhouette against the luminosity that may lie just outside the Event Horizon. Sometimes this is called the accretion disk; otherwise it is the chaos of matter that stirs just outside the Event Horizon bumping into one another, sparking, igniting, combusting, etc.  If this luminosity exists and is bright enough, then it is possible to see the outline of the Event Horizon – which is “seeing” the Black Hole.

To give some idea of the task, the telescope to view Sagittarius A (‘Sgr A’ for short) must have 1,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Telescope.  This is accomplished by combining the telescopes of 8 globally-located observatories into one giant virtual telescope which will have an effective diameter the size of Earth.  One observatory alone may record over a million gigabytes of data - which is too large to send over the Internet - and so the hard drives must be sent by plane to the locations of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Max Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany.  Although much of the data was recorded back in April 2017, a delay was encountered because the eighth radio telescope stationed in Antarctica does not service flights between the months of February and October.  In fact, the data from the South Pole Telescope just arrived to MIT this past December.  This data will be cross-correlated with data from the other telescopes located in Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, Chile, Spain, France, and Greenland and then analyzed on a computer made from about 800 CPUs.  The data may take several months to deduce in order to produce an image.


The Event Horizon Telescope is a global network of radio telescopes linking eight
observatories from Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, Chile, Spain, France, Greenland, and the South Pole.


Although seeing is believing, there are other ways to detect the presence of Black Holes. This has been accomplished in the past by observing how a Black Hole affects its surroundings, if for some reason a star or planet is oddly revolving about something which we cannot see.  Or if a celestial entity is revolving about some invisible object but then suddenly disappears (sucked into the Black Hole).

A more recent accomplishment has been the detection of gravitational waves produced by the interaction of two Black Holes colliding.  This was achieved by an instrument called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).  The LIGO observatories, placed in two locations of Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana can simultaneously record a cataclysmic event, such as the merging of two Black Holes in the distant universe.  It is the largest project ever funded by the National Science Foundation at over 600 million dollars.  As of August 2017, LIGO has detected gravitational waves on four occasions due to the collision of Black Holes.