The world is just days away from viewing the first ever real picture of a black hole, captured by the first run of the Event Horizon Telescope.
Instead of a single giant instrument, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is a project connecting dozens of observatories to scan the environment directly around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.
The results of this scan are set to be announced on Wednesday in six major news conferences heralding a breakthrough in humanity’s understanding of the universe.
Dr Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency, told AFP: “More than 50 years ago, scientists saw there was something very bright at the centre of our galaxy.”
This mysteriously bright object was very dense, and had a “gravitational pull strong enough to make stars orbit around it very quickly – as fast as 20 years”, Dr McNamara added.
Our own solar system takes 230 million years to orbit the Milky Way.
Bright light from gas the black hole is accreting. Pic: NASA , ESA, and J. Comerford (University of Colorado-Boulder)
Investigating this bizarre state of affairs, astronomers realised that the bright object wasn’t so bright after all.
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The brightness was being produced by gas and plasma swirling around the edge of something which very suddenly became absolutely black.
The point at which things became black was the event horizon, a point of no return – a mathematical point, rather than a physical barrier.
“If you’re on the inside of it, you can’t escape because you would need infinite energy. And if you are on the other side, you can – in principle,” Dr McNamara said.
At the centre of a black hole, space itself collapses into a dimensionless point. Black holes are measured by the distance between this point and the event horizon.
The black hole at the centre of our galaxy is believed to have a width of more than 22 million kilomtetres.
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Superimposed on our solar system, it would not only be larger than the sun (with a width of 700,000km) but even stretch almost halfway to Mercury.
While this sounds like it would be an easy and big thing to picture, because Earth is 26,000 light years away from the black hole, it remains incredibly small.
For this reason, a second black hole was also scanned by the EHT – one 1,500 times larger than the one at the centre of our galaxy, located at the centre of another galaxy known as Messier 87.
Although many astronomers believe that our own black hole is the most likely object to deliver big results, it remains up in the air until Wednesday’s declarations.