Bonfire Of Calamities – The MeerKAT Radio Telescope Reveals That Our Milky Way Galaxy Looks A Lot Like Hell

Tuesday, 17 July 2018 - 12:55PM
Astronomy
Black Holes
Tuesday, 17 July 2018 - 12:55PM
Bonfire Of Calamities – The MeerKAT Radio Telescope Reveals That Our Milky Way Galaxy Looks A Lot Like Hell
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Lorenzo Raynard
The MeerKAT radio telescope of South Africa just captured the most extraordinary images of the center of our Milky Way galaxy to date. The panoramic photo depicts the supermassive black hole at the center as a Vulcan forge of energy throwing off heat and sparks in a hellish bonfire.

When the MeerKAT became operational after ten long years under construction, the Milky Way's violent center seemed like a natural choice to test the telescope's full capabilities.

Opening quote
"The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes"

– Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)
Closing quote


Easier said than done. The center of our galaxy lies 25,000 light-years away from our pale blue dot, tucked behind the Sagittarius constellation and veiled in billowing storms of interstellar gas and dust. Although infrared and X-ray are both able to pierce through the fog, radio wavelengths have proven most effective (or perhaps the least ineffective) for this purpose.

Nothing could prepare astronomers for what they would uncover. The telescope sent back images of such astonishing clarity and detail that even the optimists were shocked.

Especially jaw-dropping is the telescope's depiction of mysterious "filaments" surrounding the supermassive black hole – and found nowhere else in the galaxy. Scientists still don't know anything about these filaments' purpose or origins thirty years after discovering them.

MeerKAT could change all that. According to Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who has made studying these filamentary structures his life's work:

Opening quote
"…it shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle."
Closing quote




The MeerKAT telescope consists of 64 dish antennae spanning just over 44 feet. (A width equal to the approximate height of your average brachiosaurus.) These dishes are spaced out along a grid and receive different radio signal wavelengths, which an overworked computer then translates into radio images of the sky.

Unbelievably, this massive telescope system is one single facet of a much larger undertaking: the Square Kilometre Array, slated to be the largest radio telescope in the world. It is expected to far outpace even the Hubble Space Telescope's image resolution and quality – and generate more data than the entire Internet.

What will we do with this knowledge? The Information Age ushered a shift to industries predicated on data – but access to information is of little use if you aren't equipped to parse it. Scientists are finding many breakthroughs get lost in the shuffle, moldering in a manila folder until researchers stumble across them while looking for something else.

Perhaps that is why we keep searching the skies: for the promise of something greater hidden in plain sight.
Science
Space
Astronomy
Black Holes
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