The news is almost painful. Sure, if the data from tonight turns out decent and Chandra detects a flare, then the night could yield interesting findings, despite the failure of the telescope in Arizona. And there’s always tomorrow. But for now, the crew appears to be treating the night’s observation as an exercise in perseverance.
Doeleman leans back in an office chair and closes his eyes. Weintroub lies down on the floor and promptly falls asleep. Everyone else continues monitoring their computers. Two and a half hours pass in which nothing happens, which is really the way these things are supposed to go. Boring is good for radio astronomy. In his 1987 book First Light, the writer Richard Preston describes sitting in the control room at the Palomar Mountain observatory in California with some of the greatest astronomers of the age, watching dozens of galaxies never before seen by human eyes scroll across the observation screen. It doesn’t work like that here. For now, the EHT is like a half-built long-exposure camera that yields clues and promises rather than actual pictures.
By 5 a.m., everyone is awake, and Rurik Primiani, still sitting behind his control monitors, is getting restless. “Think we have enough data now?” he asks Doeleman. “The question is whether we’re getting any data,” Doeleman replies. “Who knows what CARMA’s doing. Pretty sure we know what SMTO’s doing.”
Things become very still. Inspired by the witching hour, I ask Doeleman a question I had asked him before: Why black holes? “A black hole is the only place in the universe where you can go but you can’t come back,” he says. “In theory, if you could build the right spaceship, you could go to the center of the sun and come back. You could go to the center of a neutron star. You’d be like, ‘Whoa, it’s so dense in here!’” he says, waving his arms in a mime’s struggle to escape from a neutron-star box. “But you could come back,” he says. “You could never come back from a black hole. And that’s creepy. It creeps me out.”
A little after 6 a.m., as Doeleman rouses the postdocs and prepares to power down the machine, Weintroub and I decide to go watch the sun rise. “That was frustrating as hell,” he says, as we drive up the paved road to the true summit. All this preparation, perfect weather in Hawaii—all crippled by a broken drive motor on the telescope in Arizona. But, then, if the SMTO group can get their telescope fixed, and the weather holds at all three stations, tomorrow night could be good. “One good night makes it all worthwhile,” he says.
Scientists estimate that the Milky Way alone could contain millions of black holes. The ubiquity of something so violent, so absurd, so incomprehensible is enough to needle at our sense of existential unease. Black holes are creepy. They remind us, as philosophers have been reminding us for centuries, that we never see the world in itself. We only see its shadows.
The following night, Doeleman later told me, went quite well. Technicians fixed the malfunctioning motor at SMTO. The weather held at all the sites. And our picture of the black hole at the center of the galaxy grew a little sharper.
A few weeks later, looking for perspective on the Event Horizon Telescope’s prospects for success, I called Fred Lo, the director emeritus of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and a participant in the early hunt for Sagittarius A*. He said that what Doeleman and his team are trying to do is difficult but not without precedent. During the Cold War, he said, American astronomers coordinated with their Soviet counterparts on very long baseline interferometry observations. The American scientists would stop in Washington, D.C., to calibrate their atomic clocks and receive security clearance and then fly to Moscow, atomic clock in tow. Doeleman and company have plenty of problems to solve, but crossing the Iron Curtain is not one of them. “This is the sort of thing this community has always done,” Lo said. “It will get done.”
1. Submillimeter Array; James Clerk Maxwell Telescope; Caltech Submillimeter Observatory Mauna Kea, Hawaii
2. Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy Cedar Flat, California
3. Submillimeter Telescope Mt. Graham, Arizona
4. Atacama Large Millimeter Array; Atacama Submillimeter; Telescope Experiment; Atacama Pathfinder Experiment Chajnantor Plateau, Chile
5. Large Millimeter Telescope Sierra Negra, Mexico
6. South Pole Telescope South Pole, Antarctica
7. Plateau de Bure Interferometer Grenoble, France
8. IRAM 30-Meter Telescope Granada, Spain
Seth Fletcher is a senior editor at Popular Science and the author of Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.single page
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