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The black hole of Andalucía: History seen through a Spanish telescope
By thinkSPAIN Team Sat, Apr 20, 2019
IT'S NOW 10 days since one of the greatest breakthroughs in space science - the publishing of the first image of a black hole - and our own knowledge of these gigantic, terrifying, bottomless pits has grown considerably since then as the incredible phenomenon gathers more and more internet searches and social media followers. Spanish scientists were key in creating the footage and, if you've ever been skiing in the Sierra Nevada, you'll be stunned to know that the powerful telescope used is based just metres from the piste where you were.
Dr José Luis Gómez, investigator at the High Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) in Spain and based at the Andalucía Astrophysics Institute (IAA) says: "I wish Einstein had been alive to see this."
And not only Einstein, but the legendary Stephen Hawking, the Brit who brought space science to the ordinary person on the street, Prince of Asturias Award winner and presenter of numerous astrophysics fairs and conferences in Spain.
"This image will be the one that appears in the textbooks," Dr Gómez, who developed one of the three algorithms used in the reconstruction, explains.
"It's like breaking through glass. For the first time, we have this photo in our hands, and now we know that we can actually study these objects.
"We're confident that this finding will open the door to a better understanding of how black holes function."
Dr Iván Martí-Vidal, from Spain's National Geographical Institute (IGN), designed the algorithms that allowed the global team to combine data from the radio-telescopes that make up the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) network and build the image.
"It's not an actual photograph," clarifies Dr Martí-Vidal.
"Rather, it's the first photogram of a great film that's about to be shot.
"And it's progress that will make it possible, in the future, to understand how these borders between universes work."
Folding and compressing: You’ll never get out again
In fact, it was scientists in Spain who first raised the theory that a black hole may be a doorway to other parts of the universe rather than eating everything in their paths.
Albert Einstein, with his theory of relativity, first proposed the idea of a black hole in the early 20th century as a point of no return from which nothing, not even light, could escape, which nothing could live inside and from which nothing could be transmitted outside, which cannot be seen - only its shadow, created when light disappears inside the hole - or the 'Event Horizon' - itself. They are a massive concentration of matter compressed into a small area which generates a field of gravity that sucks in everything around them, light included.
Stephen Hawking developed the theory of black holes in the 1970s, and from his work, we know that these are the final evolution stage of super-massive stars: when a star is dying off, it folds in on itself and its mass squeezes into a much smaller surface, becoming what is known as a 'white dwarf' and, if this process of extreme gravity continues, it folds inwards further and further until it becomes a hole.
The open point of the hole, or 'Event Horizon', draws all matter towards it like a magnet - rather like an open aeroplane door, sucking out anyone or anything inside the craft.
Only super-massive stars form this dark well in space when they die; smaller stars are made from matter which can stop them collapsing inwards in a catastrophic, unstoppable manner at the end of their lives, meaning their last stage is that of a 'white dwarf' which barely shines, a ball of neutrons.
Super-massive stars are 10 times the size of our sun, and the black hole the image is based on is 3,000 times the size of Planet Earth.
Although nothing can live inside a black hole, or get out of it, a new hypothesis coined by the Corpuscular Physics Institute in Valencia nearly three years ago threw another slant on the fate of anything drawn inexorably into its centre: that they may be a gateway to other parts of our universe, and whatever gets into the middle of them may simply end up in another galaxy.
Researchers at the Institute tested their theory using graphene glass, an extra-strong triple-layered material whose 'activity' is similar to that of a black hole, and concluded that there may be a 'wormhole' in the centre of these frightening other-worldly maelstroms that allows matter to squeeze through, compressed like toothpaste coming out of a tube, and then reinflating, intact, in the next dimension of our universe.
Either way, it is believed that almost every galaxy has a super-massive black hole at its centre, along with hundreds of thousands of smaller ones - the big one in the middle being made up of millions or even billions of times the mass of our sun, whilst the mini-versions are thought to be several hundred kilometres in diameter and about the same mass as our own giant star. Our nearest super-massive black hole is believed to be around 3,000 light-years away from Earth.
An Earth-sized telescope and a giant jigsaw puzzle
The historic photograph created and released on April 10 this year involved a network of eight observatories around the globe and focused on the super-massive black hole in the centre of Galaxy Messier-87, or M87, some 53.3 million light years from our planet - a gigantic galaxy situated in the (relatively) nearby cumulus of Virgo, the CSIC explains.
Radio antennae from across the planet were connected, creating a virtual telescope as big as the Earth itself, in order to generate enough zoom-power to see the outer part of the hole.
This would still not have a wide enough base to capture the hole in its entirety; instead, different photographs taken over four days by the different telescopes, all functioning as one single radio-telescope, were slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle using an enormous computer.
So, although it is not an actual snapshot, neither is the picture a mock-up based upon observation or theory: if you think of one of your standard holiday snaps, each of the huge pile of photos taken by the eight telescopes would be a pixel, or a handful of pixels, pieced together to give the full image.
Andalucía's part in the discovery was played by one of the eight telescopes, the IRAM 30m (pictured), in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the Granada province.
In practice, the picture is not of the 'black hole' itself, since these do not emit any type of radiation that would make them visible; the huge image created is of the ring of light around it being sucked into its centre.
Why is this so important?
Well, quite simply, because it proves black holes exist. The theory of them, since Einstein first described them, has been sound enough that it was almost a given they were, indeed, a feature of our wider universe, and we had a sound idea of what they were and how they functioned. But it's only this month that we've had definitive, concrete proof that they are, indeed, out there: until the picture was taken, total certainty was not possible, and science is grounded in hard facts, not suspicions, however well-founded.
Powehi the Hawaiian powerhouse
Naturally, the black hole was very quickly given a name: Powehi, a native Hawaiian word which means 'dark, decorative and bottomless fountain' and comes from a folk song composed in the 18th century.
Powehi was the name proposed by Dr Larry Kimura, professor of language at Hawaii-Hilo University.
"The privilege of giving a Hawaiian name to the first confirmation of the existence of a black hole means a lot to me," said Kimura.
Astronomers working on the project decided the US islands deserved a tribute in this way, given that, unlike most of the participating nations, they had two telescopes in the EHT network rather than one.
PS: If you’re in Dénia…
The Costa Blanca Astronomical Society holds regular talks with experts on space matters for the layperson, followed by question-and-answer sessions (no question is ‘too stupid’, so everyone is encouraged to speak out and get it off their chest), and of course, they couldn’t miss this earth-shattering (well, metaphorically, anyway) discovery as a theme for one of their presentations.
So, on Friday, May 10 at the Casa de Cultura (community centre) in Dénia, northern Alicante province, Professor Katherine Blundell (fourth picture), who teaches astrophysics at Oxford University, UK, will be talking about everything black-hole related. The session starts at 19.00, and anyone who wants to hear it can go along, free of charge – no booking required.
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