Even without a telescope, it’s possible to look off the summit of Mauna Kea and see, 14,000 feet below and dozens of miles in the distance, wide swaths of rain forest touching the whitecapped Pacific. Down there, people are doing what people come to Hawaii to do: hiking to waterfalls, lying in the sand, exposing their skin to tropical solar radiation. Up here, there is no vegetation, no warmth and very little atmosphere. And as the sun sets over the parabolic aluminum dishes of the Submillimeter Array observatory, it’s time to work.
At noon today, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) was released from a companion aircraft and sent off into Earth's orbit. That's big news for black hole and space enthusiasts: The technology strapped to it will make the hunt for celestial objects significantly easier, both in the Milky Way and farther abroad.
Scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Johns Hopkins University report seeing a phenomenon we've all imagined: a black hole devouring a star.
A black hole at the center of a galaxy about 2.7 billion light-years away, one about the same size as the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way, was observed sucking the life out of a star.
For something that might not even exist, black holes do a whole lot of work for modern physics. These regions of compact mass--so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational fields--are a major underpinning of general relativity, and inform much of what we think we understand about how galaxies work. It's a lot to ask of a phenomenon that we've never actually seen.
Then again seeing a black hole is, by definition, a difficult idea to execute. The absence of reflected light makes black holes invisible, and the fact that the really interesting supermassive ones hide obscured at the center of galaxies compounds the problem. You would need to build a telescope the size of planet Earth to capture an image of a black hole. And that's exactly what Sheperd Doeleman, assistant director of MIT's Haystack Observatory, and his colleagues at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) are trying to do.
It’s tough to get a new space telescope funded — there are all kinds of budget disputes and delays that can make it difficult to ever get off the ground. Perhaps using a balloon is one cheaper solution. NASA just funded a new X-ray observatory that will float in the upper atmosphere for a day, staring at suspected black holes.