Clearest-Ever Infrared Milky Way Photo Solves Giant Black Hole Mystery at Center of Our Galaxy

Wednesday, 28 February 2018 - 10:11AM
Black Holes
Wednesday, 28 February 2018 - 10:11AM
Clearest-Ever Infrared Milky Way Photo Solves Giant Black Hole Mystery at Center of Our Galaxy
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Taking pictures of black holes is always tricky.

By definition, these enormous celestial vacuums don't allow light to escape from their pull, meaning that it's a challenge to get a good look at what's going on within them. It also doesn't help that black holes are often obscured by clouds of dust and debris as they pull cosmic junk towards themselves.

Such is the case with Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. Despite this black hole being (relatively) close to home, it's been difficult to get a good look at it, as it's pulled so many bright lights and dust clouds towards itself that it's hard to see past all the debris in order to see what's really going on at our galaxy's core.

Finally, though, after years of work, scientists have used the Gran Telescopio Canaria telescope to take an infrared photo of the center of the galaxy, and have caught a glimpse of the mysteries that are otherwise impossible to see.

The resulting picture is absolutely stunning, especially for those who are fans of impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. This is what it would look like if Sunflowers were crossed with Starry Night, and it's spectacular.

As well as being a beautiful sight, this picture is noteworthy because it gives us an unprecedented look at the magnetic field that surrounds Sagittarius A*.

Because actually observing black holes is so difficult, we normally have to rely on a lot of guesswork and theories when contemplating how matter and information swirls around these cosmic drains. Now, with a clear infrared picture, we're able to see exactly what the field around the supermassive black hole looks like, and we can make better estimates as to what orbital journey matter takes before it's gobbled up at the center of the black hole.

Crucially, the study also means that we now have a proven strategy for taking pictures of black holes, even when they're concealed by dust and debris. This will mean that we'll be able to take more pictures of other black holes, as well as keeping a better eye on what's going on at the center of the Milky Way.

According to Chris Packham, one of the scientists involved in taking the photo:

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"This collaborative work is an exciting step forward in our collective efforts to gain a greater understanding of our own galaxy and the super-massive black hole at the center of it. It also demonstrates the importance of access to the largest telescopes using advanced cameras/techniques."
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When gravitational waves were first observed, it didn't take long before scientists started using the discovery to measure and monitor far-off parts of space. It stands to reason that this breakthrough could be similarly important to our future studies of the universe, as we produce visible records of black holes that can help us to learn even more new, exciting rules of astrophysics that we couldn't have otherwise predicted.

Plus, quite aside from anything else, we've got a gorgeous photo of a corner of space that we've previously not been able to observe.

Vincent Van Gogh himself would no doubt be pleased with the results.
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