Scientists set to unveil first picture of a black hole

Published April 7, 2019
A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated Nasa artist's concept illustration. ─ Reuters/File
A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated Nasa artist's concept illustration. ─ Reuters/File

PARIS: The world, it seems, is soon to see the first picture of a black hole.

On Wednesday, astronomers across the globe will hold “six major press conferences” simultaneously to announce the first results of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which was designed precisely for that purpose. It has been a long wait.

Of all the forces or objects in the Universe that we cannot see — including dark energy and dark matter — none has frustrated human curiosity so much as the invisible maws that shred and swallow stars like so many specks of dust. Astronomers began speculating about these omnivorous “dark stars” in the 1700s, and since then indirect evidence has slowly accumulated.

“More than 50 years ago, scientists saw that there was something very bright at the centre of our galaxy,” Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency and an expert on black holes, said.

“It has a gravitational pull strong enough to make stars orbit around it very quickly — as fast as 20 years.” To put that in perspective, our Solar System takes about 230 million years to circle the centre of the Milky Way.

Eventually, astronomers speculated that these bright spots were in fact “black holes” — a term coined by American physicist John Archibald Wheeler in the mid-1960s — surrounded by a swirling band of white-hot gas and plasma.

At the inner edge of these luminous accretion disks, things abruptly go dark.

“The event horizon” — aka the point-of-no-return — “is not a physical barrier, you couldn’t stand on it,” McNamara explained.

“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.” At its centre, the mass of a black hole is compressed into a single, zero-dimensional point.

The distance between this so-called “singularity” and the event horizon is the radius, or half the width, of a black hole.

The EHT that collected the data for the first-ever image is unlike any ever devised.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2019

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