Looking Up – Bob Eklund

IMG_0299cropAstronomers building an Earth-size virtual telescope capable of photographing the event horizon of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way have extended their instrument to the bottom of the Earth—the South Pole—thanks to recent efforts by a team led by Dan Marrone of the University of Arizona.

Marrone, an assistant professor in the UA’s Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, and several colleagues flew to the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in December to bring the South Pole Telescope, or SPT, into the largest virtual telescope ever built—the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT. By combining telescopes across the Earth, the EHT will take the first detailed pictures of black holes.

The EHT is an array of radio telescopes connected using a technique known as very long baseline interferometry, or VLBI. Larger telescopes can make sharper observations, and interferometry allows multiple telescopes to act like a single telescope as large as the separation—or “baseline”—between them.

“Now that we’ve done VLBI with the SPT, the Event Horizon Telescope really does span the whole Earth, from the Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona, to California, Hawaii, Chile, Mexico, Spain and the South Pole,” Marrone said. “The baselines to SPT give us two to three times more resolution than our past arrays, which is absolutely crucial to the goals of the EHT. To verify the existence of an event horizon, the ‘edge’ of a black hole, and more generally, to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we need a very detailed picture of a black hole. With the full EHT, we should be able to do this.”

The prime EHT target is the Milky Way’s black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”). Even though it is 4 million times more massive than the Sun, it is tiny to the eyes of astronomers. Because it is smaller than Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, yet almost 26,000 light-years away, studying its event horizon in detail is equivalent to standing in California and reading the date on a penny in New York.

With its unprecedented resolution, more than 1,000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope, the EHT will see swirling gas on its final plunge over the event horizon, never to regain contact with the rest of the universe. If the theory of general relativity is correct, the black hole itself will be invisible because not even light can escape its immense gravity.

First postulated by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of astronomical observations. Most if not all galaxies are now believed to harbor a supermassive black hole at their center, and smaller ones formed from dying stars should be scattered among their stars. The Milky Way is known to be home to about 25 smallish black holes ranging from five to 10 times the Sun’s mass. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these cosmic oddities.

Weighing 280 tons and standing 75 feet tall, the SPT sits at an elevation of 9,300 feet on the polar plateau at Amundsen-Scott, which is located at the geographic South Pole. The University of Chicago built SPT with funding and logistical support from the NSF’s Division of Polar Programs. The division manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent.

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