Desert telescope stakes out huge black hole

2016-06-16 21:13
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Paris - First claimed more than 230 years ago, black holes have been extensively researched, frequently depicted...even featured in sci-fi films.

We've all seen the artists' impressions and read of their ravenous star-gobbling feasts.

But here's the thing... science is still not 100% sure what they look like, how they behave or even that they exist.

Centre of galaxy

Telescopes have never seen a black hole and the world's brightest minds are unable to reconcile their core characteristics with some of the bedrock laws of nature.

Seeking answers, scientists have trained a massive telescope, named Gravity, in Chile on a point about 24 000 light years away where a super massive black hole is thought to lurk at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.

The enormous eye will look for miniscule but telltale deviations in the movement of gas and stars swirling around the monster hole.

"The goal of Gravity is to finally prove the existence of a black hole at the centre of our galaxy," said project member Guy Perrin, an astronomer from the Paris Observatory.

But finding something unexpected would in some ways be an even bigger breakthrough as it may offer clues to our imperfect understanding of physics.

Gravity's theorised target, Sagittarius A, is four million times more massive than our Sun, packed into an area smaller than the Solar System.

More detail

To observe it up close, astronomers have combined the power of Europe's four largest telescopes, based in the Atacama desert, to create the most powerful instrument of its kind ever built.

The images will be "about 10-20 times sharper than what we had before", said project leader Frank Eisenhauer of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

With a combined diameter of about 130m, the device will allow astronomers to observe more detail, closer to the black hole, than ever before.

"We will check whether our physical understanding is correct to conclude it is a black hole," said Eisenhauer.

"If you see the motion of matter so close to a black hole, it would be very difficult to find any other explanation."

Black holes are regions in space-time where mass is collapsed into such a small area that gravity takes over completely and nothing can escape its pull.


Read more on:    france  |  chile  |  space

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