The world is finally about to see a black hole — not an artist’s impression or a computer-generated likeness, but the real thing.
At six press conferences across the globe scheduled for 1300 GMT on Wednesday, scientists will unveil the first results from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), conceived precisely for that purpose.
It has been a long wait.
Of all the forces in the Universe that we cannot see — including dark energy and dark matter — none has frustrated human curiosity as thoroughly as the invisible, star-devouring monsters known as black holes.
Yet, the phenomena are so powerful that nothing nearby — not even light — can escape their gravitational pull.
“Over the years, we accumulated indirect observational evidence,” said Paul McNamara, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency and project scientist for the LISA mission that will track massive black hole mergers from space.
In September 2015, for example, the LIGO gravitational wave detectors in the United States measured two black holes smashing together.
“X-rays, radio-waves, light -– they all point to very compact objects, and the gravitational waves confirmed that they really are black holes, even if we have never actually seen one,” McNamara told AFP.
Two candidates are vying to be in the first-ever image.
Oddsmakers favour Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the centre of our own spiral galaxy, the Milky Way.
Sag A* has four million times the mass of our Sun, and measures about 24 million kilometres across.
That may sound like a big target, but for the telescope array on Earth some 26,000 light years (245 trillion kilometres) away, it’s like trying to photograph a golf ball on the Moon.
The other candidate is 1,500 times more massive still, ensconced in a faraway elliptical galaxy known as M87.
Comparing the two, distance and size balance out, making it roughly as easy (or hard) to pinpoint either.
– Ripples in time-space –
A black hole is a celestial object that compresses a huge mass into an extremely small space. The more mass, the larger the black hole.
At the same scale of compression, Earth’s mass would fit inside a thimble, while the Sun’s would be a mere six kilometres from edge to edge.
There are two types.
Garden-variety black holes — up to 20 times more massive than the Sun — form when the centre of a very big star collapses in on itself.
So-called supermassive black holes are at least a million times bigger than the Sun. Both Sag A* and M87 fall into this category.
The EHT is unlike any star-gazing instrument ever devised.
“Instead of constructing a giant telescope we combined several observatories as if they were fragments of a giant mirror,” Michael Bremer, an astronomer at the Institute for Millimetric Radio Astronomy in Grenoble, told AFP.
Eight such radio telescopes scattered across the globe — in Hawaii, Arizona, Spain, Mexico, Chile, and the South Pole — zeroed in Sag A* and M87 on four different days in April 2017.
Each is at least a big as a football pitch. Together, they form a virtual telescope more than 12,000 kilometres across, the diameter of Earth.
Data collected by the far-flung array was to be collated by supercomputers at MIT in Boston and in Bonn, Germany.
“The imaging algorithms we developed fill the gaps of data we are missing in order to reconstruct a picture,” the team said on their website.
Astrophysicists not involved in the project, including McNamara, are eagerly — perhaps anxiously — waiting to see if the findings challenge Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which has never been tested on this scale.
The LIGO experiments from 2015 detected signature ripples in the curvatures of time-space during the black hole merger.
“Einstein’s theory of general relativity says that this is exactly what should happen,” McNamara said.
But those were tiny black holes compared with either of the ones under the gaze of the EHT.
“Maybe the ones that are millions of times more massive are different — we just don’t know yet,” McNamara said.
WATCH: Ben Carson thanks God for Trump in bizarre prayer — and then asks Him to ‘Keep America Great’
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Monday opened up the White House cabinet meeting with a bizarre prayer that explicitly thanked God for the existence of President Donald Trump.
Carson began his prayer with a standard invocation thanking God for "the blessings that you have bestowed upon this country."
After that, though, Carson gave God a thumbs-up for the work He's done in putting Trump in the White House.
"We thank You for President Trump, who also exhibits great courage in face of constant criticism," Carson said. "We ask you give him strength to endure and wisdom to lead and to recognize you as the sovereign of the universe, with the solution to everything."
Bill Barr sparks anxiety within the CIA as he investigates ‘origins’ of Mueller’s Russia probe: security analyst
As the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General William Barr, investigates the origins of the Russia investigation, some CIA operatives who played a role in gathering intelligence for Robert Mueller's probe are hiring lawyers, according to NBC News national security reporter Ken Dilanian.
According to various reports, President Trump has granted Barr with "expansive powers" for the investigation and he's reportedly seeking to question CIA analysts.
Speaking to MSNBC's Morning Joe this Monday, Dilanian said that while it's not clear what Barr's intentions are, many in the CIA are "very rattled" at the news.
White House personnel chief delivers a new blow to Trump: Top DHS candidates are not legally qualified
President Donald Trump's quest to find an acting replacement for departed Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen was dealt a significant blow on Monday.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House personnel office chief Sean Doocey has informed the president that he doesn't believe either of his top two picks are legally qualified to hold the position.
As the Journal notes, "federal statute that governs vacancies states that acting officials in cabinet-level positions must either be next in line for a position or hold a Senate-confirmed position." Neither Ken Cuccinelli, who heads the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, nor Mark Morgan, who leads Customs and Border Protection, meet those standards, Doocey determined.