Bose Tulik: This is a 60-second Science American science. I am Tulika Bose.
Today is super massive news from space. The the first image of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A *, was just released by astronomers this morning.
I’m talking to here Seth Fletcher our editor-in-chief features for Scientific American. He literally wrote a A book about the telescope of the event horizon, and is our permanent expert on all things black holes. So Seth, what does it really take to photograph a black hole?
Seth Fletcher: So I mean, as you know, black holes are technically invisible. They capture everything that gets inside, including light, everything that passes through the event horizon, which is the border, stays there forever. It just can never escape.
But supermassive black holes, such as Sagittarius A *, are surrounded by glowing erased matter that revolves around a black hole. Part of it falls into it, part just forms this disk around itself and this substance glows, and the black hole because of the way it twists space, time around itself because of the incredible force of attraction, it casts a shadow on this glowing matter.
And that’s really what we see in this picture.
Boz: So we know that astronomers took this picture using a worldwide network of radio observatories called Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT. That’s what you wrote the book about. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Fletcher: Decades ago, people realized that microwave ovens could collect radio light of a certain length. And if you could do that with an Earth-sized radio telescope, you could unravel something as small for us as the center of the black hole, the Milky Way, or at least what people thought there was.
The amazing thing about radio astronomy is that there is a technique called interferometry that allows you to combine multiple plates that are very far apart into one efficient virtual telescope.
Boz: It is the largest high-resolution technique in all of astronomy. What does that mean, Seth?
Fletcher: Every year there is a very limited period of time when telescopes in Europe, North America, South America, Antarctica can see the same in the sky. So they made this schedule when, for example, Sagittarius A * will be above the horizon and will be visible in which telescopes.
They just scan the black holes for several nights. They then take all the data to the hard drives. They then physically send it to two supercomputer banks, one in Massachusetts, one in Germany, and then relate it all into a single data set. And then they look for him for common discoveries where all his telescopes have seen the same thing.
Boz: And why is this such a big deal?
Fletcher: It’s just the second black hole we’ve ever seen directly, but it’s much cooler. It’s like our private, supermassive black hole. It is located in the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy.
This is a solution to a mystery that people have been trying to unravel for a very long time. Now that we see it, we see it change. We will be able to observe this in the future and this may make possible various interesting sciences about gravitational space, time, black holes, galaxy formation, who knows what humans will be able to cook.
Boz: Astronomers also say that in the future, if they add more observatories to the EHT, they will even be able to make films about Sagittarius A *. I guess it would look like a video of matter circling the sewers before falling into the abyss.
For 60-second science, I’m Tulik Bose.