We Might See the First-Ever Photo of a Black Hole This Week

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Few objects in the universe hold the same mystique as a black hole. These collapsed stars distort space and time, pulling in anything nearby with unfathomable gravity. Even light cannot escape their pull. That’s why they’re so mysterious — we can’t see black holes, but a project called the Event Horizon Telescope might be on the verge of producing the first-ever photo of one. Researchers have teased a “groundbreaking result” this week.

A black hole is what’s left over after a massive star (at least 10 times larger than the sun) exhausts all its fuel and collapses into a gravitational singularity. Smaller stars end up as neutron stars or white dwarfs (the likely fate of our sun). As far as we are currently aware, it’s impossible to image or otherwise observe the singularity itself, but we might be able to get a peek at the event horizon.

The event horizon of a black hole is what makes it black. It’s a bounty in space through which matter and energy can pass on the way to the singularity, but nothing comes back out. Getting an image of the event horizon of a black hole could help scientists hammer out some of the mind-bending physics at play, and the Event Horizon Telescope could deliver that in the coming days.

The Event Horizon Telescope consists of radio telescopes from all over the world, scanning the sky in a coordinated effort to create a rendering of an event horizon. The project aims to silhouette the event horizon of a black hole against a bright background. See below for a mockup of what that might look like.

Einstein described the sizes and shapes we might see in event horizons more than 100 years ago. Thus far, Einstein’s predictions have been proven correct by observation and experimentation. Being able to examine an event horizon could confirm yet another aspect of general relativity.

In advance of the possible observation, scientists used GPUs to model all the hypothetical shapes of an event horizon. The team ended up with hundreds of gigabytes of 3D volume data describing possible event horizons. They will compare these with what the Event Horizon Telescope actually sees. The Event Horizon Telescope project and the U.S. National Science Foundation will host a briefing on the results on Wednesday, April 10, at which time we might get our first ever look at a black hole.

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