Ridley Scott, eat your heart out.
Like terrified moviegoers seated on the edges of their seats and at the mercy of their imaginations, astronomers expect this week to finally see the monster: a supermassive black hole.
At 9 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday, a group of astronomers who run a globe- girdling network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope are expected to unveil their long-awaited pictures of a pair of putative black holes. One of the objects sits at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, buried in the depths of interstellar dust and gas, and equivalent in mass to 4.1 million suns that otherwise have disappeared from the visible universe.
The other target is in the heart of Messier 87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo, where a black hole 7 billion times the mass of the sun is spewing a jet of energy thousands of light-years across space.
According to calculations, and if all has gone well, either or both of the black holes should appear as a tiny shadow backlit by the glow of radio energy at the galactic center.
If, in fact, astronomers have finally brought the monsters into view at last. The Event Horizon team has been extremely tight-lipped. Nobody knows for certain if either of these black holes, if any, has been imaged.
Shep Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope, was ebullient but guarded when reached last week at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “The team is working exceptionally hard to quadruple-check all the results,” he said.
But he and his colleagues are acting as if they have something to celebrate. The announcement of their results will take place simultaneously in six places around the world, reflecting the vast international nature of the collaboration. One news conference, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., will be presided over by France Córdova, head of the National Science Foundation. The team and their friends have booked the National Air and Space Museum for a party that evening.
The unveiling will take place almost exactly a century after images of stars askew in the heavens made Einstein famous and confirmed his theory of general relativity as the law of the cosmos. That theory ascribes gravity to the warping of space and time by matter and energy, much as a mattress sags under a sleeper, and allows for the contents of the universe, including light rays, to follow curved paths.
General relativity led to a new conception of the cosmos, in which space-time could quiver, bend, rip, expand, swirl like a mix-master and even disappear forever into the maw of a black hole.
To Einstein’s surprise, the equations indicated that when too much matter or energy was concentrated in one place, space-time could collapse, trapping matter and light in perpetuity.
Einstein disliked that idea, but the consensus today is the universe is speckled with black holes waiting to vacuum up their surroundings. Many are the gravitational tombstones of stars that have burned up their fuel and collapsed.
Any lingering doubts as to their existence vanished three years ago when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected the collision of a pair of distant black holes, which sent a shiver through the fabric of space-time.
Since then, other collisions have been recorded, and black holes have become so humdrum that astronomers no longer bother sending out news releases about them.
Nonetheless, astronomers are thrilled at the prospect of finally, actually seeing the previously unseeable.
“Yes, I’m definitely excited to see the image!” Daniel Holz, of the University of Chicago, wrote in an email. “It’s not really rational, since I know the math works and the theory has been thoroughly tested. But still, this would be a picture of the real thing, up close and personal. That is super cool.”