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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Black Hole Shadow: Very Large Telescope Zaps the Sky

Image of the Day: Laser Strikes at Supermassive Black Hole at Core of the Milky Way Galaxy


It's not the sequel to War of the Worlds! Astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth's ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser -- which appear like an artificial star -- allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. In this case, the VLT was observing our Galaxy's center, and so Earth's atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed.

At the center of the Milky Way is Sagittarius A -believed to be a supermassive black hole, which lurk at the center of all spiral galaxies. If we can observe Sagittarius A*'s surroundings we can confirm once and for all whether it's a black hole - and prove Einstein right (or wrong!) . Relativity theory predicts the existence of black holes. If relativity breaks down, we might not see a black hole at all, but something totally weird.

Relativity describes how large masses can bend space, and a black hole is where the mass is so large that space gives up altogether and becomes a singularity. Black holes are already well understood, we think, but we've only ever observed them at second hand - the behavior of orbiting objects or bent light rays. To actually view the shadow of a black hole, the cut-off point where light is swallowed and cannot escape, would be a massive advance - and only the beginning.
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