'Event Horizon Explorer' could transform black hole imaging

This space observatory would allow astronomers to take sharper images of black holes than the EHT.  
Mrigakshi Dixit
Illustration of Event Horizon Explorer concept.
Illustration of Event Horizon Explorer concept.

Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff 

About four years ago, a group of international researchers, unveiled to the world the first-ever image of an enigmatic black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87. 

The image took the world by storm, marking a significant achievement in the field of astronomy as it was previously regarded to be "unimaginable."

Using this major accomplishment as a springboard, the group led by the Center for Astrophysics - Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA), is now preparing something much greater in order to uncover the mysterious nature of black holes. 

A multi-specialist team of researchers, engineers, and physicists recently gathered at Harvard to begin planning the next ambitious step: the Event Horizon Explorer (EHE). 

As per the official release, this $300 million space mission builds on the success of the 2019 Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project. 

Taking sharper images of black holes

This space observatory would allow astronomers to take sharper images of black holes than the EHT.  

“What we are trying to do now is launch a space mission that would improve the sharpness of the EHT images by a factor of 10,” said Michael Johnson, an astrophysicist at the CfA, in an official release. 

EHE images would be able to show photon rings (the bright orange ring in the image) formed by particles moving rapidly around a black hole. 

These rings were characterized by Johnson as “a tiered wedding cake, where each time the light goes around, it piles up a sharper ring.” 

“We [currently] can’t see those in the EHT images. They’re too narrow to distinguish from the rest of the light near a black hole,” he added. 

Studying photon rings 

The study of photon rings may give information on the behavior of the black holes that lurk at the heart of each galaxy. It may, for example, offer evidence of the spinning of black holes. 

It will also deduce the nature of space-time surrounding black holes as they rotate. Space-time is a mathematical model that represents the universe's four dimensions: length, breadth, height, and time.

“If a black hole is spinning, it would distort the shape of the photon ring, squeezing it into an oval,” said Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in the History of Science and Physics and director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. 

'Event Horizon Explorer' could transform black hole imaging
The first-ever black hole image was released in 2019.

Galison stated that if EHE is successful in measuring the photon ring then “that will be a rock-solid measurement of the effects of the rotating black hole to bend the path of light itself.”

However, before this mission becomes a reality, a number of major technological challenges need to be addressed, including the development of sensitive receivers that must remain at an absolute zero temperature in order to catch the light reaching the telescope. 

Moreover, the measurement of photon rings would lead to the generation of massive amounts of data — the equivalent of the whole Library of Congress — aboard the spacecraft. The group intends to overcome this obstacle by rapidly beaming data down to Earth using laser light technologies.