FOR THE WEEK OF MAY 16, 2022
New frontier: Global antenna system delivers first stunning look at huge black hole in our galaxy
Share a fact or quote from coverage of this topic and give your reaction.
List at least two school subjects used regularly by astronomers.
Relay something you learn from different science or technology coverage.
Big words seem too small to properly describe a new image from outer space, but they're the best we can do. Scientists last week released the first look at a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which includes our solar system (sun, Earth and seven other planets). A black hole is a region of space where matter has collapsed in on itself. Nothing, not even light, can escape the strong gravitational pull. Black holes emerge from the explosive collapse of certain large stars, though astronomers don't know precisely how they form.
The pathbreaking image (see video below) comes from an international team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration. It shows a chaotic mass of super-heated gas that's about 40 million miles wide and a staggering four million times the mass of our sun. A central dark region is where the energy hole resides, circled by light from ultra-hot gas – called plasma – accelerated by immense gravitational forces. Fortunately, this monster is far, far away – some 26,000 light-years in the distance – so there's no possibility danger to Earth.
Though it's gigantic, the phenomenon is so distant that it's essentially a tiny pinprick in the vast darkness of deep space. To spot it, the EHT project uses eight widely spaced radio antennas around the world – including one at the South Pole – to mimic a telescope the size of our planet. The image took years to create from countless hours of supercomputing to process and analyze over two million gigabytes of gathered data. The achievement relied on contributions from more than 300 scientists at 80 universities and other institutions, including our country's National Science Foundation.
The way a black hole bends light means there is nothing to see except a "shadow," but the brilliance of the matter screaming around this darkness and spreading out into a circle – called an accretion disc – shows where the object is and lets us see something that's actually unseeable. Scientists already are taking measurements from the new image to test the physics they use to describe black holes. So far, what they see matches the equations set out more than a century ago by Albert Einstein in his 1905 theory of gravity.
Massachusetts researcher says: "The pandemic slowed us down, but it couldn’t stop us." -- Vincent Fish, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, near Boston
Dutch professor says: "This is in 'our backyard,' and if you want to understand black holes and how they work, this is the one that will tell you because we see it in intricate detail." – Heino Falcke, Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands
California scientist says: "What's more cool than seeing the black hole at the center of our Milky Way?" -- Katherine Bouman, computer imaging specialist at the California Institute of Technology in PasadenaOr:
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