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Scientists could get first ever image of a black hole in 2017

Despite all the depictions of black holes in science fiction movies and TV, scientists have never actually seen one. Even the largest black holes scientists have located are still very obscured and distant. At best we can see the swirling firestorm of super-hot matter falling into the black hole, but scientists working on the Event Horizon Telescope think we’ll soon be able to snap an image of a black hole as soon as 2017.

There are a number of problems the EHT team has to overcome in order to image a black hole, not least of which how small they are. The incredible mass of a black hole is what gives it such strong gravity. That also means it has extraordinary density.

For example, Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A star) is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It’s diameter is only 17 times greater than our sun, but its mass is 4 million times greater. It’s 25,000 light years away, so trying to spy it with a regular telescope would be like looking at a grapefruit on the surface of the moon. The other issue is all the dust and gas spiraling around a black hole that obscures the view of the event horizon.

The EHT team thinks it has figured out a way to get around both of these issues. In fact, team member Feryal Ozel says it’s a lucky coincidence. The team opted to use radio waves to observe black holes (EHT is a radio telescope array), so the first order of business was to settle on a wavelength in the radio spectrum to concentrate on. 1.3mm was chosen as it would be able to penetrate the shroud around the black hole. It happens that this wavelength also passes through the Earth’s atmosphere very well. Lastly, the team believes the gas right at the event horizon (which is the target of the observation) should emit strongly in the 1.3mm wavelength.

The image the team hopes to produce next year will be yet another test of general relativity. The theory holds that mass bends space time, something confirmed experimentally repeatedly. Although, a back hole is an extreme example. If the universe works like we think, when the event horizon is imaged we should see a crescent (impression at top) as the gas spinning around the black hole is brighter on the side approaching Earth. If observations don’t match the hypothesis, someone’s going to need to come up with an explanation.

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