At the center of our galaxy, an enormous black hole has worked invisibly for billions of years, and now scientists are gearing up to snap its picture.
A conference will be held to discuss the never-before-attempted photographic gambit on January 18 at the University of Arizona (UA). There scientists will map out an interstellar imaging project that astronomers of previous decades never could have imagined.
Why unimaginable? According to the statement,
Even though the black hole suspected to sit at the center of our galaxy is a supermassive one at 4 million times the mass of the sun, it is tiny to the eyes of astronomers. Smaller than Mercury’s orbit around the sun, yet almost 26,000 light years away, it appears about the same size as a grapefruit on the moon.
Getting the picture will be a herculean task. The team will connect 50 telescopes of all sizes, from Hawaii to the South Pole, and use them as components of a single, enormous virtual telescope. The Event Horizon Telescope, as the project is called, will bring scientists "as close to the edge of black hole as we will ever come," according to the telescope's website. "In essence," said Sheperd Doeleman, principal investigator of the project, "we are making a virtual telescope with a mirror that is as big as the Earth."
Dimitrios Psaltis, co-organizer of the conference and associate professor of astrophysics at UA's Steward Observatory, spoke of the project in ambitious terms. "We need the entire world to come together to build this instrument because it is as big as the planet," he said. "People are coming from all over the world because they have to work on it."
And for good reason: the black hole image will verify or disprove a part of Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity. General relativity predicts that the swirl of dust and gases around a black hole—which is all the telescope will be able to see, since the hole itself is, of course, black—should form a perfect circle. If it looks even slightly distorted, we may have to rethink parts of Einstein's important theory.