Thursday, January 19, 2012

To catch a black hole

Astronomers are endeavoring to take the first-ever picture of a black hole.

And the way they're attempting to do it is nifty as heck.  We're talking about a virtual telescope the width of the Earth, combining "up to 50 radio telescopes from Taiwan to the Netherlands to the South Pole" into what's being called "The Event Horizon telescope."  The system will attempt to outline the enormous black hole that is thought to be at the center of our galaxy.  This is a big deal for space science.

A quote from one of the lead astrophysicists on the project really puts things into perspective for me: "A couple of years ago, this was science fiction. Now it's becoming a reality."
Nothing could be truer.  I'm old enough to remember when black holes were merely a theory in astronomy.  Now they are almost a certainty and we're on the cusp of actually seeing one.  Potentially, we may even see the swirl of charged gas, dust, and other matter as it enters the black hole. You'll almost be able to feel your skin tingle from the heat at a safe distance.  I don't know if that's true, but wouldn't it be cool if it were?

What is gleaned from this imagery might go well beyond the "ooo and ahhh" factor and have repercussions for Einstein's general theory of relativity.  The image outline of the black hole will come in piecemeal from all of the different telescopes and be assembled into one coherent form.  If the final image of the black hole is perfectly circular, then all works in line with what Einstein predicted.  If it is more elliptical or otherwise shaped, then there must be flaws in Einstein's theory at various points.  

Far sweeping implications aside, I'm just eager for the images.  I also keep coming back to that quote of "A couple of years ago, this was science fiction. Now it's becoming a reality." 
Funny how that seems to happen.

If it's awesome photos from space that you're after and you can't wait the three or so years it will probably take to get that outline imagery of the black hole, then take a look at this.  MSNBC posted a photoblog of the area of the Eagle Nebula known as "the Pillars of Creation."  After taking a look at the pics, you'll see how it gets its name.  Breathtaking.

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