Existing images of the cosmic phenomena are illustrations, since black holes are so dense that light cannot escape – forcing researchers to make educated guesses about what they look like.
Over the next 10 days, using eight radio observatories at six locations around the world, researchers hope to establish visual proof of one of Albert Einstein’s oddest predictions.
“This week heralds an exciting and challenging endeavor for astronomy,” said France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation. “Radio telescopes from around the world, anchored by the ALMA Observatory in Chile, will work to test some of physics’ most fundamental theories.”
Ranging from the world’s tallest volcano in Hawaii to the frigid South Pole, these observatories will be pointed toward the supermassive black hole lurking in the Milky Way’s center to collect data at a scale never attempted before in physics, the astronomers said.
The team hopes to capture images of the black hole’s event horizon – the point at which matter can no longer overcome the gravitational pull.
“These are the observations that will help us sort through all the wild theories about black holes,” said Gopal Narayanan, an astronomy researcher professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “And there are many wild theories.”
The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) – a joint project between UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica – will coordinate with observatories across the planet to form an Earth-sized telescope that will have the observational effect of one large instrument. The team calls this network of observatories the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT.
“In the following days, the LMT will contribute to this experiment which can make a fundamental test of a prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity under the most extreme physical conditions,” said LMT director David Hughes.
Direct images of the black hole’s event horizon would provide further evidence of the existence of these cosmic phenomena, while putting Einstein’s general theory of relativity through one of its most difficult tests.
Direct proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity predicting the relationship between time and space was first identified in 2015 after a faint chirp was detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, which astronomers believe was the result of two far-away supermassive black holes colliding roughly 1.3 billion years ago.
“At the very heart of Einstein’s general theory of relativity there is a notion that quantum mechanics and general relativity can be melded, that there is a grand, unified theory of fundamental concepts,” Narayanan said.
“The place to study that is at the event horizon of a black hole.”