The very first image of a real-life black hole is on its way tomorrow thanks to the science and technology of the Event Horizon Telescope. That is right despite black holes being absolutely crucial to our understanding of the way the solar system has formed humans have never actually laid eyes on one of these regions of spacetime with strong gravitational effects.
Of course, NASA and other scientific organizations have published images created by artists that give us an impression of what a black hole would look like but none of these beautiful artworks are the real deal.
The image of Sagittarius A, the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, is set to be released tomorrow.
Huge international effort
Here is what we know at the moment. First, it is really hard to get an image of a black hole, and the impending image release has taken years of work and infinite amounts of collaborative engineering from scientist located all across the globe.
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) isn’t one big telescope but is made up of an array of radio telescopes that are linked together to boost their power.
In combination, these telescopes form what’s known as a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) that is as big as Earth itself. It needs to be this big because although Sagittarius A is massive, about 4 million times as massive as our sun. It is also really really far away - about 26,000 light years. Being that far away means Earth isn’t about to be sucked into its center any time soon, but it also makes it really hard to see.
Years in the making
The EHT is created from telescopes located in Chile, Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, Spain, and the South Pole. Each telescope has been synchronized to collect several petabytes of data that will be combined with the help of a very powerful supercomputer to create the first image of Sagittarius A.
There is so much data being collected that the image we will see on Wednesday was actually created back in 2017. The data collected by the telescopes is so huge that it needs to be stored on hard disks and physically transported to the data-processing center and combined with data from the other observatories.
Why is this important?
Aside from just being really cool, being able to observe a black hole will create a lot of opportunities for scientists to examine space and physics in a totally new way. Importantly they will be able to more directly examine some long-standing theories is about time and space such as Einstein's theory of gravity.
This theory could actually be proved wrong once we get into the nitty-gritty of a black hole. So stay tuned until tomorrow when we will be back with images of Sagittarius A and all the latest news surrounding it.