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Scientists to Image Black Hole by Turning Earth into Giant Camera

Don't panic! This is just an artist's interpretation of a black hole eating a star that looks unsettlingly like our Earth (via ESO/L. Calçada)
Don’t panic! This is just an artist’s interpretation of a black hole eating a star that looks unsettlingly like our sun. (via ESO/L. Calçada)

The problem with trying to take a picture of a black hole is that it consumes everything, even the light around it. Now, a team of scientists is working to make the first image of a black hole by using telescopes around the world to look at its shadowy edge.

GIF simulating Einstein rings around a black hole (via Wikimedia)
GIF simulating Einstein rings around a black hole (via Wikimedia)

Called BlackHoleCam, the project recently received a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council for €14 million (a little over $19 million). In a statement, Heino Falcke, a radio astronomy professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and one of the three BlackHoleCam principal investigators, explained:

While most astrophysicists believe black holes exist, nobody has actually ever seen one. The technology is now advanced enough that we can actually image black holes and check if they truly exist as predicted: If there is no event horizon, there are no black holes.

The event horizon is that edge where everything turns to nothing (although, based on the hallucinatory events of the 1997 sci-fi horror film of the same name, you REALLY don’t want to see what’s out there). The theory is that there’s a supermassive black hole right at the center of our beloved Milky Way galaxy, and this is the one the BlackHoleCam is aiming to “photograph.” It’s not quite a photograph in the traditional sense — one hurdle being, of course, that photographs are all about capturing light, and black holes are sort of the least photogenic things in our universe in that regard. The image would rely on a whole team of telescopes around the world (including the fancy new ALMA observatory in Chile), with their data synthesized by supercomputers. Or, as Space.com writes in their coverage: “This method can, in effect, create a virtual telescope the size of the entire Earth.” Awesome!

ALMA antennas in Chile (via ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO))
ALMA antennas in Chile (via ALMA [ESO/NAOJ/NRAO])
So, why does this matter to people down on Earth? Imaging an event horizon could definitively prove the power of black holes, something that now relies heavily on theory. And when something out there has a mass of thousands of suns, it’s worth knowing everything we can about it. Plus, if the project succeeds, it could mean even more previously impossible images of the universe through a coordinated effort of the Earth’s observatories.

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