Scientists Gear Up to Take a Picture of a Black HoleNews Flash Saturday, January 14th, 2012
(PHYSORG.com) On Wednesday, Jan. 18, astronomers, physicists and scientists from related fields will convene in Tucson, Ariz. from across the world to discuss an endeavor that only a few years ago would have been regarded as nothing less than outrageous. The conference is organized by Dimitrios Psaltis, an associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and Daniel Marrone, an assistant professor of astronomy at Steward Observatory.
“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole,” Psaltis said. “We are going to do just that.”
“Even five years ago, such a proposal would not have seemed credible,” added Sheperd Doeleman, assistant director of the Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who is the principal investigator of the Event Horizon Telescope, as the project is dubbed. “Now we have the technological means to take a stab at it.”
First postulated by Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of observations, measurements and experiments. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these maelstroms whose sheer gravity exerts such cataclysmic power they twist and mangle the very fabric of space and time.
“Black holes are the most extreme environment you can find in the universe,” Doeleman said.
The field of gravity around a black hole is so immense that it swallows everything in its reach; not even light can escape its grip. For that reason, black holes are just that –emitting no light whatsoever, their “nothingness” blends into the black void of the universe.
So how does one take a picture of something that by definition is impossible to see?
“As dust and gas swirls around the black hole before it is drawn inside, a kind of cosmic traffic jam ensues,” Doeleman explained. “Swirling around the black hole like water circling the drain in a bathtub, the matter compresses and the resulting friction turns it into plasma heated to a billion degrees or more, causing it to ‘glow’ – and radiate energy that we can detect here on Earth.”
By imaging the glow of matter swirling around the black hole before it goes over the edge of the point of no return and plunges into the abyss of space and time, scientists can only see the outline of the black hole, also called its shadow. Because the laws of physics either don’t apply to or cannot describe what happens beyond that point of no return from which not even light can escape, that boundary is called the Event Horizon.