Ten nights of staunch observation may have led astronomers to successfully peer inside a black hole and take an image of its event horizon, or its point of no return.
The mass of data collected is now on its way to two supercomputers in the United States and Germany to confirm in early 2018 if it is indeed the very first capture of the renowned gravitational sinkhole.
Black Hole Information Paradox
The ultimate goal for researchers was getting a picture of a region surrounding the black hole. This is the event horizon, or the boundary beyond which not even light can escape the object’s massive grasp.
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, born in 1915 and which details how gravity affects the cosmos, has the existence of extremely massive black holes as one of its first predictions.
“They are the ultimate endpoint of space and time, and may represent the ultimate limit of our knowledge,” said radio astronomer Heino Falcke of Radboud University in the Netherlands, adding that the first images will turn black holes from mythical things to concrete evidence that scientists can actually study.
Einstein’s theory notes that all the information crossing a black hole’s event horizon gets lost forever. Yet according to quantum mechanics, information can never be lost.
Back in the 1970s, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking found that black holes can disappear, and so information can be lost forever. The theoretical structure that quantum mechanics puts forward is therefore compromised if the particles’ information could indeed be lost in the black hole.
Event Horizon Telescope
All the scientific inquiry and ambition has led to the widely ambitious Event Horizon Telescope, an international collaboration linking eight observatories to create a virtual telescope dish as wide as Earth. While the method is nothing new, it is the first time that a project is done on a large scale.
The radio-dish network went to work on a 10-day window starting April 4, peering at two supermassive black holes: Sagittarius A*, lying at the core of the Milky Way and 4 million times as huge as our sun; and the Messier 87, a black hole in a neighboring galaxy some 53 million light-years away.
The telescope has investigated the vicinity of each of the monster black holes before, but this marks the first time the network comprised the South Pole telescope as well as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope located in Chile.
ALMA, for one, increases the Event Horizon Telescope’s acuity 10 times, allowing it to find something as tiny as a golf ball-sized object on the moon — and potentially the small event horizons of the black holes.
Hurdling The Weather And Months Of Waiting
The image returned is hoped to demonstrate the flow of material moving in and out of the black hole.
“What we expect to see is an asymmetric image where you have a circular dark region. That’s the black hole shadow,” MIT research scientist Vincent Fish told Newsweek, adding the presence of the photon ring or a spherical area of space where gravity is so potent that photons are forced to travel in orbits.
The weather proved to be a crucial factor in the mission as astronomers observe black holes in millimeter radio waves, which water absorbs as well as emits. This means precipitation could cloud the observations.
Mitigating this issue involves placing radio telescopes at high altitudes, although rain, clouds, or snow could still take the observatory offline. Even high-altitude winds could shut down a given telescope.
Thus Fish and his fellow scientists met every day to decide on when to activate the large network and assess weather conditions at every site. Constant weather monitoring and communication among astronomers were done.
The researchers have collected about one petabyte of data, which equates to MP3 songs playing continuously for more than 2,000 years without any repeats. Two research institutes, the MIT Haystack and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, are receiving the said data.
The telescopes’ recorded information is stored on 1,024 drives, which will be mailed to the research institutes’ processing centers. Hard drives coming from the South Pole telescope, too, cannot be sent out until the end of winter in the region, or by the end of October.
Despite the long wait and other external factors, the team remains optimistic. Falcke said that even if the images emerge as “crappy and washed out,” they can help test basic predictions of Einstein’s theory in the extreme-physics environment of a black hole.
Knowing the black hole’s mass and distance, explained Fish, means one should see the shadow and ring, and that the latter will have a specific diameter and will be quite circular.
“If the shape isn’t circular or the wrong size, then relativity has made a prediction that has failed,” he said.