4 things we’ll learn from the first closeup image of a black hole

We’re about to see the first close-up of a black hole.

The Event Horizon Telescope, a network of eight radio observatories spanning the globe, has set its sights on a pair of behemoths: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s center, and an even more massive black hole 53.5 million light-years away in galaxy M87 (SN Online: 4/5/17).

In April 2017, the observatories teamed up to observe the black holes’ event horizons, the boundary beyond which gravity is so extreme that even light can’t escape (SN: 5/31/14, p. 16). After almost two years of rendering the data, scientists are gearing up to release the first images in April.

Here’s what scientists hope those images can tell us.

What does a black hole really look like?
Black holes live up to their names: The great gravitational beasts emit no light in any part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so they themselves don’t look like much.

But astronomers know the objects are there because of a black hole’s entourage. As a black hole’s gravity pulls in gas and dust, matter settles into an orbiting disk, with atoms jostling one another at extreme speeds. All that activity heats the matter white-hot, so it emits X-rays and other high-energy radiation. The most voraciously feeding black holes in the universe have disks that outshine all the stars in their galaxies (SN Online: 3/16/18).

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