News

Scientists to Image Black Hole by Turning Earth into Giant Camera

by Allison Meier on December 24, 2013

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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  • ADWheeler

    “star that looks unsettlingly like our Earth.” FYI…Earth…..is a planet…not a star. If you are posting a scientific post…you are going to want to get that right.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      She never said the Earth was a star. She wrote that the star resembled the Earth more than she would’ve liked.

    • Becca Kallem

      I think it is a typo, should say ‘sun’

      • Allison C. Meier

        Yes, my mistake! Apologies for the carelessness. Obviously, I don’t see our Earth as a giant flaming orb.

        • TheBorc

          Obviously, scientists never make typos. When you are writing about scientific things you should also be absolutely perfect.

          Now, sure. She shoulda caught the mistake. That said there’s no reason to be a dick.

        • Aîya van Kooten

          it was obvious that you meant sun. excellent article, thank you for sharing.

  • InklingBooks

    ALMA is a radio telescope and those leading this project are radio astronomers, so all the remarks in this article about taking a picture of a black hole should be taken as figurative, as should the remark about “turning earth into a giant telescope.”

    Radio astronomers have been doing that for years, combining data from radio telescopes thousands of miles apart, as this quote from the Mac Planck Institute illustrates: “However, by combining high-frequency radio telescopes around the world, in a technique called very long baseline interferometry, or VLBI, even such a tiny feature is in principle detectable.”

    Scientists know when they’re using terms figuratively, but an article written for the general public like this one should make that distinction clear. All the uses of telescope in it should be prefixed with radio and the headline, dreadful like many are, should not talk about the earth becoming a “giant camera” but of the earth become a platform for radio telescopes that function like one giant one in their ability to see something small.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

    • TheBorc

      I sortof agree. A few points coulda been made slightly more clear with 50 more words.
      No biggie though, that’s what comments and google are for. Right?
      One common misconception about black holes is that they ‘eat everything near them’. Well, sorta. Sometimes. Black holes are essentially as far as gravity goes the same thing as the massive star they once were. Things can orbit the star before it explodes and turns into a black hole, and things can orbit the black hole after it explodes.
      Also, sometimes as black holes eat they eat too much at once and end up spitting out large quantities of matter out their poles at near to the speed of light.
      What these telescopes will be looking for is the radio waves emitted as matter falls in, though. When matter is spinning around in a death spiral (sorta like a marble rolling down a big funnel) it gets faster and faster as it gets closer, and the pressure also increases dramatically as a bunch of matter is being compressed. With that matter super hot, super compact and super fast it emits large quantities of radiation. That radiation can be detected with our radio telescopes!

  • Ben Skirvin

    I’m a bit rusty in my gravitational physics, but I don’t think that the event horizon is the point at with “everything becomes nothing.” I believe it is the point past which light cannot be projected away towards an outside observer. The point at which gravity is so strong that light can no longer escape.

  • Howard Pearlman

    What if you could link all of the private home satellite dishes into the project ?

    • Rick Day

      We could rule the stars!

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