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  • richardmitnick 9:35 am on February 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Event Horizon Telecope, ,   

    From Universe Today: “Get Ready for the First Pictures of a Black Hole’s Event Horizon” 


    Universe Today

    22 Feb , 2017
    Evan Gough

    NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    It might sound trite to say that the Universe is full of mysteries. But it’s true.

    Chief among them are things like Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and of course, our old friends the Black Holes. Black Holes may be the most interesting of them all, and the effort to understand them—and observe them—is ongoing.

    That effort will be ramped up in April, when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) attempts to capture our first image of a Black Hole and its event horizon. The target of the EHT is none other than Sagittarius A, the monster black hole that lies in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Though the EHT will spend 10 days gathering the data, the actual image won’t be finished processing and available until 2018.

    The EHT is not a single telescope, but a number of radio telescopes around the world all linked together. The EHT includes super-stars of the astronomy world like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) as well as lesser known ‘scopes like the South Pole Telescope (SPT.) Advances in very-long-baseline-interferometry (VLBI) have made it possible to connect all these telescopes together so that they act like one big ‘scope the size of Earth.

    The combined power of all these telescopes is essential because even though the EHT’s target, Sagittarius A, has over 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it’s 26,000 light years away from Earth. It’s also only about 20 million km across. Huge but tiny.

    The EHT is impressive for a number of reasons. In order to function, each of the component telescopes is calibrated with an atomic clock. These clocks keep time to an accuracy of about a trillionth of a second per second. The effort requires an army of hard drives, all of which will be transported via jet-liner to the Haystack Observatory at MIT for processing. That processing requires what’s called a grid computer, which is a sort of virtual super-computer comprised of 800 CPUs.

    But once the EHT has done its thing, what will we see? What we might see when we finally get this image is based on the work of three big names in physics: Einstein, Schwarzschild, and Hawking.

    A simulation of what the EHT might show us. Image: Event Horizon Telescope Organization

    As gas and dust approach the black hole, they speed up. They don’t just speed up a little, they speed up a lot, and that makes them emit energy, which we can see. That would be the crescent of light in the image above. The black blob would be a shadow cast over the light by the hole itself.

    Einstein didn’t exactly predict the existence of Black Holes, but his theory of general relativity did. It was the work of one of his contemporaries, Karl Schwarzschild, that actually nailed down how a black hole might work. Fast forward to the 1970s and the work of Stephen Hawking, who predicted what’s known as Hawking Radiation.

    Taken together, the three give us an idea of what we might see when the EHT finally captures and processes its data.

    Einstein’s general relativity predicted that super massive stars would warp space-time enough that not even light could escape them. Schwarzschild’s work was based on Einstein’s equations and revealed that black holes will have event horizons. No light emitted from inside the event horizon can reach an outside observer. And Hawking Radiation is the theorized black body radiation that is predicted to be released by black holes.

    The power of the EHT will help us clarify our understanding of black holes enormously. If we see what we think we’ll see, it confirms Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, a theory which has been confirmed observationally over and over. If EHT sees something else, something we didn’t expect at all, then that means Einstein’s General Relativity got it wrong. Not only that, but it means we don’t really understand gravity.

    In physics circles they say that it’s never smart to bet against Einstein. He’s been proven right time and time again. To find out if he was right again, we’ll have to wait until 2018.

    Event Horizon Telescope Array

    Event Horizon Telescope map

    The locations of the radio dishes that will be part of the Event Horizon Telescope array. Image credit: Event Horizon Telescope sites, via University of Arizona at https://www.as.arizona.edu/event-horizon-telescope.

    Arizona Radio Observatory
    Arizona Radio Observatory/Submillimeter-wave Astronomy (ARO/SMT)

    Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX)

    CARMA Array no longer in service
    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA)

    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)
    Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE)

    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO)

    IRAM NOEMA interferometer
    Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique (IRAM) 30m

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope interior, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    CfA Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO
    Submillimeter Array Hawaii SAO

    Future Array/Telescopes

    ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array, Chile

    Plateau de Bure interferometer
    Plateau de Bure interferometer

    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL
    South Pole Telescope SPTPOL

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 1:02 pm on January 9, 2016 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Worldwide Telescope Network Will Take Best-Ever Images of Black Holes” 

    space-dot-com logo


    January 08, 2016
    Calla Cofield

    Temp 1
    An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. The simulations will be compared to observational data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope, which will be increasing its sensitivity in 2017 and 2018.
    Credit: Özel/Chan

    Get ready for your close-up, black holes: The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which will take some of the best images of black holes ever captured by humans, is ramping up its worldwide network of telescopes.

    Event Horizon Telescope map
    Event Horizon Telescope map. Credit U Arizona

    By 2018, the EHT will be an observatory that harnesses the power of nine telescopes around the world, including ones in Chile, Arizona, Hawaii, Antarctica and Greenland. These instruments will work together to get higher-resolution images than any of these scopes can achieve alone. The target of their observations will be black holes — scientists hope to see the material moving around these dark monsters, as well as the shadow of the black hole itself.

    Telescopes in The EHT:

    ALMA Array

    South Pole Telescope
    South Pole Telescope


    Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico
    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    Submillimeter Telescope in Arizona
    U Arizona Submillimeter Telescope

    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California
    CARMA Array

    Harvard Smithsonian Submillimeter Array
    SMA Submillimeter Array

    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii
    James Clerk Maxwell Telescope

    Institute for Radio Astronomy Millimetrique (IRAM) telescopes in Spain and France
    IRAM 30m Radio telescope

    “One thing that could excite the public almost as much as a Pluto flyby would be a picture of a black hole, up close and personal,” Feryal Ӧzel, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Arizona, said during a talk here at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where a few thousand astronomers and astrophysicists have gathered to discuss the latest news in the field. (Ӧzel’s comment was made in reference to the massive public interest in the images captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe,

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    which flew by the dwarf planet last July.)

    Other telescopes have studied black holes in the past, but the goal of the EHT is to take images that surpass the resolution of any previous black-hole snapshots. With that information, scientists would be able to see the area around a black hole — a place where the pull of gravity is so extreme that very strange things happen.

    Temp 2
    Images made from simulations showing how matter might move around in the extreme environment around a black hole. Scientists hope to use the simulations to better understand observations taken by the Event Horizon Telescope.
    Credit: Özel/Chan

    For example, the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Messier 87 has a massive, narrow jet of material, roughly 5,000 light-years long, spewing away from it.

    Messier object 87 by Hubble space telescope
    18 August 2009

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    In contrast, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — Sagittarius A* — has very little matter around it and no jets.

    Sagittarius A*. This image was taken with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Ellipses indicate light echoes. source
    23 July 2014

    NASA Chandra Telescope

    In galaxies known as active galactic nuclei (AGNs), black holes accelerate huge clouds of material around them, and radiate more light than the entire Milky Way galaxy. What leads to such a drastic difference between these objects? With EHT, Ӧzel said, scientists may finally be able to answer that question.

    “Is it the magnetic field structure that is different? Is it the spin that is different? Or is it something else about the accretion flow that is different?” Ӧzel said. “This will open a brand-new window into studying accretion physics.”

    And then there’s [Albert]Einstein. His theory of general relativity has been tested using observations in Earth’s solar system — for example, the way light bends around the sun — and beyond. But there are few cosmic environments as extreme as the one around a black hole, where the gravity can be millions of times stronger than it is around a star. As a result, the EHT will reveal the effects of gravity (which are described by the theory of relativity) “on scales that have never been probed before,” said Ӧzel, who is a scientist on the EHT project team and is leading some of the theoretical work that will be combined with the observations.

    “Get to the edge of a black hole, and the general relativity tests you can perform are qualitatively and quantitatively different,” Ӧzel said.

    Understandably, Ӧzel and other black-hole scientists are eager to start getting data from EHT. One of the major requirements of imaging black holes in such high resolution is to have a very large telescope. In fact, Ӧzel said that achieving the resolution of EHT effectively requires a telescope the size of the Earth.

    “Of course nobody would fund an Earth-sized telescope,” Ӧzel said. But the “next-best thing” is to combine observations from multiple telescopes on the surface of the Earth that are separated by very large distances, Ӧzel said [interferometry]. With this technique, scientists can observe an object in significantly higher resolution than the telescopes could achieve alone — effectively giving scientists an “Earth-size” telescope.

    The first data from the EHT project were collected in the mid-2000s, by three telescopes — one each in Hawaii, Arizona and California. The group collaborated to look at the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. In 2014, the collaboration added the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to its array, and doubled its resolution, according to the EHT website.

    Six telescopes in the EHT array are already taking data, and a total of nine are expected to be contributing to the project by 2018, according to Shep Doeleman, principal investigator for EHT.

    Early in 2015, the collaboration added the South Pole Telescope to its array, which connected the other telescopes such that the EHT effectively spanned the entire Earth. In 2017, the EHT will be able to make observations with ALMA that will boost its sensitivity by a factor of 10, Doeleman told Space.com in an email. In 2018, an additional telescope will join the group from Greenland.

    “One of the innovative aspects of the EHT is that we use existing telescopes at the highest altitudes (where they are above most of the atmosphere) and outfit them with specialized instrumentation that enables us to link them together,” Doeleman said. “So we don’t build new dishes, and we leverage over a [billion dollars] of existing telescopes.”

    However, there are still obstacles, he noted. “Last year, one of the facilities participating in the EHT had to close due to lack of funding,” Doeleman said. “We can still do all the EHT [work] planned because new sites are coming online, but we remain ‘en guard’ for threats against EHT sites.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:13 am on August 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com- ” Incredible Technology: How to See a Black Hole” Very Old, But Very Worth Your Time 

    space-dot-com logo


    July 08, 2013
    Clara Moskowitz

    Theoretical calculations predict that the Milky Way’s central black hole, called Sagittarius A*, will look like this when imaged by the Event Horizon Telescope. The false-color image shows light radiated by gas swirling around and into a black hole. The dark region in the middle is the “black hole shadow,” caused by the black hole bending light around it.
    Credit: Dexter, J., Agol, E., Fragile, P. C., McKinney, J. C., 2010, The Astrophysical Journal, 717, 1092.

    Black holes are essentially invisible, but astronomers are developing technology to image the immediate surroundings of these enigmas like never before. Within a few years, experts say, scientists may have the first-ever picture of the environment around a black hole, and could even spot the theorized “shadow” of a black hole itself.

    Black holes are hard to see in detail because the large ones are all far away. The closest supermassive black hole is the one thought to inhabit the center of the Milky Way, called Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star”), which lies about 26,000 light-years away.

    Sagittarius A*. This image was taken with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Ellipses indicate light echoes.
    Date 23 July 2014

    NASA Chandra Telescope

    This is the first target for an ambitious international project to image a black hole in greater detail than ever before, called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

    Event Horizon Telescope
    Event Horizon Telescope map
    EHT and EHT Map

    The EHT will combine observations from telescopes all over the world, including facilities in the United States, Mexico, Chile, France, Greenland and the South Pole, into one virtual image with a resolution equal to what would be achieved by a single telescope the size of the distance between the separated facilities.

    “This is really an unprecedented, unique experiment,” said EHT team member Jason Dexter, an astrophysical theorist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s going to give us more direct information than we’ve ever had to understand what happens extremely close to black holes. It’s very exciting, and this project is really going to come of age and start delivering amazing results in the next few years.”

    From Earth, Sagittarius A* looks about as big as a grapefruit would on the moon. When the Event Horizon Telescope is fully realized, it should be able to resolve details about the size of a golf ball on the moon. That’s close enough to see the light emitted by gas as it spirals in toward its doom inside the black hole.

    Very long baseline interferometry

    To accomplish such fine resolution, the project takes advantage of a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). In VLBI, a supercomputer acts as a giant telescope lens, in effect.

    “If you have telescopes around the world you can make a virtual Earth-sized telescope,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts who’s leading the Event Horizon Telescope project. “In a typical telescope, light bounces off a precisely curved surface and all the light gets focused into a focal plane. The way VLBI works is, we have to freeze the light, capture it, record it perfectly faithfully on the recording system, then shift the data back to a central supercomputer, which compares the light from California and Hawaii and the other locations, and synthesizes it. The lens becomes a supercomputer here at MIT.”

    A major improvement to the Event Horizon Telescope’s imaging ability will come when the 64 radio dishes of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) observatory in Chile join the project in the next few years.

    ALMA Array
    ALMA Array

    “It’s going to increase the sensitivity of the Event Horizon Telescope by a factor of 10,” Doeleman said. “Whenever you change something by an order of magnitude, wonderful things happen.”

    Very long baseline interferometry has been used for about 50 years, but never before at such a high frequency, or short wavelength, of light. This short-wavelength light is what’s needed to achieve the angular resolution required to measure and image black holes.

    South Pole Telescope [SPT]

    The South Pole Telescope will join the Event Horizon Telescope project in coming years to image the area around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

    South Pole Telescope

    Grand technical challenge

    Pulling off the Event Horizon Telescope has been a grand technical challenge on many fronts.

    To coordinate the observations of so many telescopes spread out around the world, scientists have needed to harness specialized computing algorithms, not to mention powerful supercomputers. Plus, to accommodate the time difference between the various stations, extremely accurate clocks are needed.

    See the full article here.

    Event Horizon Telescope
    Event Horizon Telescope Science

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  • richardmitnick 10:49 am on August 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NOVA: “The Shadow of a Black Hole” 



    21 Aug 2015
    Matthew Francis

    Event Horizon Telescope
    Part of Event Horizon Telescope [EHT]

    Event Horizon Telescope map
    EHT map

    The invisible manifests itself through the visible: so say many of the great works of philosophy, poetry, and religion. It’s also true in physics: we can’t see atoms or electrons directly and dark matter seems to be entirely transparent, yet this invisible stuff makes and shapes the universe as we know it.

    Then there are black holes: though they are the most extreme gravitational powerhouses in the cosmos, they are invisible to our telescopes. Black holes are the unseen hand steering the evolution of galaxies, sometimes encouraging new star formation, sometimes throttling it. The material they send jetting away changes the chemistry of entire galaxies. When they take the form of quasars and blazars, black holes are some of the brightest single objects in the universe, visible billions of light-years away. The biggest supermassive black holes are billions of times as massive as the Sun. They are engines of creation and destruction that put the known laws of physics to their most extreme test. Yet, we can’t actually see them.

    A simulation of superheated material circling the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: Scott C. Noble, The University of Tulsa

    Black holes are a concentration of mass so dense that anything that gets too close—stars, planets, atoms, light—becomes trapped by the force of gravity. The point of no return is called the event horizon, and it forms a sort of imaginary shell around the black hole itself. But event horizons are very small: the event horizon of a supermassive black hole could fit comfortably inside the solar system (comfortably for the black hole, that is, not for us). That might sound big, but on cosmic scales, it’s tiny: the black hole at the center of the Milky Way spans just 10 billionths of a degree on the sky. (For comparison, the full Moon is about half a degree across, and the Hubble Space Telescope can see objects as small as 13 millionths of a degree.)

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    Both the size and nature of the event horizon make it difficult to observe black holes directly, though indirect observations abound. In fact, though black holes themselves are strictly invisible, their surrounding regions can be extremely bright. Many luminous astronomical objects produce so much light from such a small region of space that they can’t be anything other than black holes, even though our telescopes aren’t powerful enough to pick out the details. In addition, the stars at the center of the Milky Way loop close enough to show they’re orbiting an object millions of times the mass of the Sun, yet smaller than the solar system. No single object, other than a black hole, can be so small and yet so massive. Even though we know black holes are common throughout the universe—nearly every galaxy has at least one supermassive black hole in it, and thousands more smaller specimens—we haven’t confirmed that these objects have event horizons. Since event horizons are a fundamental prediction of general relativity (and make black holes what they are), demonstrating their existence is more than just a formality.

    However, confirming event horizons would take a telescope the size of the whole planet. The solution: the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which links observatories around the world to mimic the pinpoint resolution of an Earth-sized scope. The EHT currently includes six observatories, many of which consist of multiple telescopes themselves, and two more observatories will be joining soon, so that EHT will have components in far-flung places from California to Hawaii to Chile to the South Pole. With new instruments and new observations, EHT astronomers will soon be able to study the fundamental physics of black holes for the first time. Yet even with such a powerful team of telescopes, the EHT’s vision will only be sharp enough to make out two supermassive black holes: the one at the center of our own Milky Way, dubbed Sagittarius A*, and the one in the M87 galaxy, which weighs in at nearly seven billion times the mass of the sun.

    The theory of general relativity predicts that the intense gravity at the event horizon should bend the paths of matter and light in distinct ways. If the light observed by the EHT matches those predictions, we’ll know there’s an event horizon there, and we’ll also be able to learn something new about the black hole itself.

    The “gravitational topography” of spacetime near the event horizon depends on just two things: the mass of the black hole and how fast it is spinning. The event horizon diameter of a non-spinning black hole is roughly six kilometers for each solar mass. In other words, a black hole the mass of the sun (which is smaller than any we’ve yet found) would be six kilometers across, and one that’s a million times the mass of the Sun would be six million kilometers across.

    If the black hole is spinning, its event horizon will be flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator and it will be surrounded by a region called the ergosphere, where gravity drags matter and light around in a whirlpool. Everything crossing the border into the ergosphere orbits the black hole, no matter how fast it tries to move, though it still conceivably can escape without crossing the event horizon. The ergosphere will measure six kilometers across the equator for each solar mass inside the black hole, and the event horizon will be smaller, depending on just how fast the black hole is rotating. If the black hole has maximum spin, dragging matter near the event horizon at close to light speed, the event horizon will be half the size of that of a non-spinning black hole. (Spinning black holes are smaller because they convert some of their mass into rotational energy.)

    When the EHT astronomers point their telescopes toward the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, they will be looking for a faint ring of light around a region of darkness, called the black hole’s “shadow.” That light is produced by matter that is circling at the very edge of the event horizon, and its shape and size are determined by the black hole’s mass and spin. Light traveling to us from the black hole will also be distorted by the extreme gravitational landscape around the black hole. General relativity predicts how these effects should combine to create the image we see at Earth, so the observations will provide a strong test of the theory.

    If observers can catch sight of a blob of gas caught in the black hole’s pull, that would be even more exciting. As the blob orbits the black hole at nearly the speed of light, we can watch its motion and disintegration in real time. As with the ring, the fast-moving matter emits light, but from a particular place near the black hole rather than from all around the event horizon. The emitted photons are also influenced by the black hole, so timing their arrival from various parts of the blob’s orbit would give us a measure of how both light and matter are affected by gravity. The emission would even vary in a regular way: “We’d be able to see it as kind of a heartbeat structure on a stripchart recorder,” says Shep Doeleman, one of the lead researchers on the EHT project.

    Event Horizon Telescope astronomers have already achieved resolutions nearly good enough to see the event horizon of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. With the upgrades and addition of more telescopes in the near future, the EHT should be able to see if the event horizon size corresponds to what general relativity predicts. In addition, observations of supermassive black holes show that at least some may be spinning at close to the maximum rate, and the EHT should be able to tell that too.

    Black holes were long considered a theorist’s toy, ripe for speculation but possibly not existing in nature. Even after discovering real black holes, many doubted we would ever be able to observe any of their details. The EHT will bring us as close as possible to seeing the invisible.

    Contributing institutes

    Some contributing institutions are:

    Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Arizona Radio Observatory, University of Arizona
    Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
    Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy
    European Southern Observatory
    Georgia State University
    Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
    Greenland Telescope
    Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
    Haystack Observatory, MIT
    Institut de Radio Astronomie Millimetrique
    Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE)
    Joint Astronomy Centre – James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
    Large Millimeter Telescope
    Max Planck Institut für Radioastronomie
    National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
    National Radio Astronomy Observatory
    National Science Foundation
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    Onsala Space Observatory
    Perimeter Institute
    Radio Astronomy Laboratory, UC Berkeley
    Radboud University
    Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (SHAO)
    Universidad de Concepción
    Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)
    University of California – Berkeley (RAL)
    University of Chicago (South Pole Telescope)
    University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
    University of Michigan

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 9:20 am on June 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NYT: “Black Hole Hunters” 

    New York Times

    The New York Times

    JUNE 8, 2015
    Dennis Overbye

    Sheperd Doeleman’s project to take the first-ever picture of a black hole wasn’t going well.

    For one thing, his telescope kept filling with snow.

    For two weeks at the end of March, Volcan Sierra Negra, an extinct 15,000-foot volcano also known as Tliltepetl that looms over the landscape in southern Mexico, was the nerve center for the largest telescope ever conceived, a network of antennas that reaches from Spain to Hawaii to Chile.

    Known as the Event Horizon Telescope, named after the point of no return in a black hole, its job was to see what has been until now unseeable: an exquisitely small, dark circle of nothing, a tiny shadow in the glow of radiation at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It is there that astronomers think lurks a supermassive black hole, a trap door into which the equivalent of four million suns has evidently disappeared.

    Nature, Albert Einstein once said, is not malicious, only subtle. But it loves a good fight.

    Lightning greeted Dr. Doeleman and his crew of astronomers late one night as they crested the summit of their outpost in the unfriendly sky.

    What little air there was tasted the way you might imagine it would on Mars. Snowflakes swirled around their heads. The Large Millimeter Telescope [LMT], a 20-story tower with a 150-foot-wide bowl-shaped antenna sitting like an oversize cocked hat on its roof, was barely visible in the gloom.

    Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano

    The astronomers stepped gingerly out of their cars onto a moonscape of rocks and down a ramp into the telescope’s basement, a labyrinth of warmly lit rooms and labs, as if entering the lair of a James Bond villain.

    Dr. Doeleman had planned to spend the night working out new techniques to point the telescope, which among its other problems was afflicted by a persistent and annoying electrical hum. By the time the weather had cleared enough, the radio dish was frozen solid underneath an inch of ice. The stars whirled above, past the remains of storm clouds, their secrets unscathed.

    “This is par for us,” Dr. Doeleman, a fresh-faced 48-year-old researcher from M.I.T.’s Haystack Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said with a mix of resignation and pride.

    Sheperd Doeleman, seated at left, and other scientists monitored data in the control room of the Large Millimeter Telescope. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    If he and his colleagues succeed, the images they capture will be in textbooks forever, as definitive evidence of Einstein’s weirdest prediction: that space-time could curl up like a magician’s cloak around massive objects and vanish them from the universe. In short, that black holes — objects so dense that not even light can escape their maws — are real. That space and time as we know them can come to an end right under our noses.

    Conversely, they could produce evidence that Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, the rule of rules for the universe, needs fixing for the first time since it was introduced a hundred years ago.

    “We’re swinging for the fences,” Dr. Doeleman, who has spent eight years putting this effort together, said one afternoon in an office in Serdan, a small town at the volcano’s base.

    He was dressed in long johns and layers of sweaters and fleece, and sipped coca-leaf tea to combat the effects of altitude. He was sweaty, and his hair stood on end in an Einsteinian Mohawk after a long night trying to troubleshoot his telescope.

    “We have to worry about everything, from soup to nuts,” he said, ticking off all the things that make this radio network, stretched like a spider web across the planet, a fragile object. Success hinges on the exigencies of weather on several continents, high-strung technology, altitude, even traffic — two of his colleagues had just been delayed in a car accident on the way from Mexico City.

    “I guess spider silk is stronger than steel,” he said, “but even spider silk can snap.”

    The Large Millimeter Telescope is on the summit of the dormant volcano Sierra Negra in Mexico at an altitude of 15,092 feet. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    The Cosmic Roach Motel

    Black holes were one of the first and most extreme predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, first announced in November 1915. It explains the force we call gravity as objects trying to follow a straight line through a universe whose geometry is warped by matter and energy. As a result, planets as well as light beams follow curving paths, like balls going around a roulette wheel.

    Einstein was taken aback a few months later when Karl Schwarzschild, a German astronomer then serving on the Russian front, pointed out that the equations contained an apocalyptic prediction: Cramming too much matter and energy inside too small a space would cause space-time to sag without limit. No force known to science could stop it from becoming a sinkhole from which not even light could escape.

    Einstein could not fault the math, but he figured that in real life, nature would find some way to avoid such a calamity. A century later, however, astronomers agree that space is indeed sprinkled with massive objects that emit no light at all. Call them cosmic roach motels. Stars, atoms, wisps of gas that trace their pedigree to the Big Bang — all of them check in, never to check out.

    Many of them are supposed to be the remnants of massive stars that have burned out, collapsed and imploded in cataclysms like supernovas or the even more violent gamma-ray bursts visible across the universe.

    Generations of theorists, including Stephen Hawking, using the telescope of the mind, have made careers investigating the properties of these objects only barely in the universe. But they are still arguing about just what happens inside a black hole and the ultimate fate of whatever falls in.

    Nearly every galaxy seems to harbor one of these dark monsters, millions or even billions of times as massive as the sun, squatting at its center like Dante’s devil. The bigger the galaxy, for some reason, the more massive the void inside it. How that happens is a cosmic nature-versus-nurture question, and anyone’s guess.

    “How does a black hole know how big a galaxy it’s in and when to stop growing?” mused David Hughes, the director of the Large Millimeter Telescope, “or, conversely, how does the galaxy know to stop feeding it?”

    Left by themselves, black holes lie dormant with their mouths open. But when something — say, a wayward star or gas cloud — does fall toward a black hole, it is heated to billions of degrees as it swirls in a doughnut called an accretion disk around the cosmic drain. Black holes are sloppy eaters, and when they feed, jets of X-rays and radio energy can be squeezed like toothpaste out of a tube from the accretion disks. Astronomers believe this is what produces the energies of quasars, brilliant beacons in the cores of galaxies that far outshine the starry cities in which they dwell. “Paradoxically,” Dr. Doeleman said, “that makes black holes some of brightest things in the sky.”

    Last winter, a team of astronomers from Beijing University and the University of Arizona announced that they had discovered one of the biggest, baddest black holes yet — 10 billion times as massive as the sun, anchoring a quasar that was blazing 40,000 times brighter than the Milky Way when the universe was only a billion years old.

    Not all the action is so far, far away.

    The center of the Milky Way, 26,000 light-years from here, coincides with a faint source of radio noise called Sagittarius A*.

    Sgr A* (centre) and two light echoes from a recent explosion (circled)

    Astronomers like U.C.L.A.’s Andrea Ghez tracking the orbits of stars circling the center have been able to calculate that whatever is at the center has the mass of four million suns. But it emits no visible or infrared light.

    If this is not a black hole, neither Einstein nor anyone else knows what it could be.

    “That is the strongest evidence so far for an event horizon,” Dr. Doeleman said, using the name for the boundary of a black hole, the edge that is the point of no return.

    But that is only a circumstantial argument, assuming that Einstein was right. “If Einstein was wrong, how would we know?” said Avery Broderick, a theorist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, noting that general relativity, for all its mathematical beauty, had never been tested under the extreme conditions that would prevail in the Big Bang or black holes, where the full weirdness of Einsteinian space-time would manifest itself.

    According to work that goes back to a paper by James Bardeen in 1967, the Sagittarius black hole, if it is there, would appear as a ghostly dark circle amid a haze of radio waves. Its exact shape, the theorists say, would depend on details like how fast the hole is spinning.

    The black hole’s own gravity will distort and magnify its image, resulting in a shadow about 50 million miles across, appearing about as big from here as an orange would on the moon, according to calculations performed by Eric Agol of the University of Washington, Heino Falcke of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and Fulvio Melia of the University of Arizona, in 2000.

    The proof of the pudding for Einstein would be if radio astronomers could determine that the shadow, the graveyard of four million suns, really was that small. They have been whittling its size ever since Sagittarius A* was discovered, in 1974.

    Scientists checking the Large Millimeter Telescope for ice on its dish. Inclement weather interferes with the telescope’s functioning. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    In 2005, a group led by Shen Zhiqiang of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory narrowed the diameter of Sagittarius A* to a cloud of energy less than 90 million miles across, about twice the size of the long-sought shadow, using the Very Long Baseline Array, a transcontinental network of antennas.


    “For most people, seeing is believing,” Dr. Agol said at the time. But there was a problem getting measurements any finer. The ionized electrons and protons in interstellar space scattered the radio waves into a blur that obscured details of the source. “It’s like looking through frosted glass,” Dr. Doeleman said.

    To see deeper into the black hole shadow, they needed to be able to tune their radio telescope to shorter wavelengths that could penetrate the haze. And they needed a bigger telescope. The bigger the antenna, the higher resolution or magnification it can achieve.

    “Our black hole is active but eating on a slow diet, with billion-degree gas around it,” Dr. Doeleman said. The result, at the heart of the Milky Way, is “a puffy cloud,” he said. “You need the right frequency to see through the debris at the galactic center.”

    Enter the Event Horizon Telescope.

    On the Edge

    Dr. Doeleman had taken a wandering path to the edge of infinity.

    The son of a science teacher, he grew up in Oregon and studied physics at Reed College in Portland. He applied to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but before he could go, he saw an ad looking for people to do experiments in the Antarctic. He signed up and spent most of a couple of years at the bottom of the world. “It was there that I probably caught the bug for doing science under challenging circumstances,” Dr. Doeleman said. He reapplied to M.I.T. from Antarctica and then wandered around Asia on his way home.

    At M.I.T., he first joined a group doing plasma physics, then dabbled in X-ray astronomy and biophysics before joining a radio astronomy group. The technique of choice for radio astronomers is known by the intimidating name of very long baseline interferometry — V.L.B.I. for short — in which separate radio telescopes as far as a continent apart can be joined in a synchronized network that mimics a single antenna with a very big diameter.

    Dr. Doeleman was originally interested in using the technology to monitor movements of the Earth’s crust and was hoping to travel to exotic places to install instruments. But it turned out they were already installed. So his eyes turned to the heavens and the mysteries of quasars.

    During a talk recently, Dr. Doeleman showed a picture of a galaxy in the constellation Centaurus, a gentle-looking pearly smoosh of starlight with a slash of dust across its belly. Known as NGC 5128, the galaxy can be seen through binoculars from the Southern Hemisphere.

    Then he showed a picture of the same galaxy taken through what he called “radio goggles.” In this view, the galaxy is being ripped apart by an explosion at its core, shooting lobes of energy thousands of light-years across space.

    Dr. Doeleman traced his interest in quasars and black holes to the moment he first saw images like that. “Whatever is powering those jets has to be insanely powerful,” he said.

    In 2008, Dr. Doeleman had what he calls an “a-ha moment” when he and colleagues yoked together three radio telescopes in Hawaii, Arizona and California into a interferometer system and trained it on the galactic center, using a shorter wavelength. They detected a small blob of energy, “a dot that would not go away.”

    They were seeing something through the frosted glass. But what?

    Since then, he and his colleagues have devoted their energies to building a network big enough to see whether that radio dot harbors signs of a black hole.

    In all, the Event Horizon Telescope involves 20 universities, observatories, research institutions and government agencies, and more than a hundred scientists. Among other things, to keep the radio telescopes in their network suitably synchronized, they had to equip them with new atomic clocks accurate to within one second every 100 million years, and new short-wavelength receivers.

    Dr. Doeleman recalled having to wear an oxygen tank to test atomic clocks at the new ALMA array, on a 16,000-foot plateau in Chile. Another colleague, Daniel Marrone of the University of Arizona, spent last winter at the South Pole installing a new receiver. Both of these installations will eventually join the Event Horizon observations.

    The March observing run was the first time the group would have enough telescopes — seven radio telescopes, on six mountains — to begin to hope they could glimpse the black hole. They would have five chances over a period of two weeks.

    On each night, they hoped to have two black holes in their sights: Sagittarius A*, and one in a giant galaxy known as M87, which anchors the enormous Virgo cluster of galaxies about 50 million light-years away. The M87 black hole has been estimated at six billion times the mass of the sun, and from here, it would appear only slightly smaller than the Milky Way black hole. Moreover, jets of energy shoot like a blowtorch from its accretion disk and across intergalactic space. Astronomers really wanted to get a close look at that.

    The Large Millimeter Telescope is the nerve center for the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of antennas that make up the largest telescope ever. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    Hoping for Boredom

    “It’s beautiful work,” Andrew Strominger, a Harvard theorist who has joined the Event Horizon team, said of the telescope.

    In practice, it could be gritty or boring, depending on how things were going.

    The visit to Sierra Negra in March was Dr. Doeleman’s fifth in two years. The commute required a plane ride and five hours in buses, cars and trucks to the small, decidedly untouristic town of Serdan. He sometimes toted a special crystal used to test atomic clocks, which provoked attention from security officers. “It looks just like you would expect a bomb to look — a metal cylinder with wires sticking out,” he said.

    For his troubles, he often wound up with a headache, the price of working almost three miles above sea level. The telescope control room is outfitted with finger monitors that measure blood oxygen and an oxygen tank and mask for those woozy moments.

    Sierra Negra is next door to an even bigger peak, Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain, and the pair combine to create their own weather, which can cause problems for astronomers.

    One night, the telescope was being turned to keep it from filling with snow. Dr. Doeleman was in the unheated receiver room, where light from the antenna’s focus bounces off mirrors down an open shaft into boxes the size of microwave ovens, when he felt the building shake. Thinking it might be an earthquake, Dr. Doeleman ran for the elevator, only to find his colleagues rushing up from the control room and offices below. “I was pretty freaked,” he said.

    It was no earthquake. Because of an electrical malfunction, the gargantuan dish, half a football field wide and weighing 1,600 metric tons, had suddenly lurched to a stop, transferring all that momentum to the structure around it.

    Later on, a real earthquake sent the astronomers running from their breakfasts down in Serdan.

    In late March, Dr. Doeleman’s collaborators were camped out on similarly uncomfortable mountains in Chile, Hawaii, California, Arizona and Spain, waiting for his signal, based on weather forecasts and the state of their equipment — all the accouterments of that spider silk — to begin observing. All the telescopes would point in unison at M87, and then at the galactic center.

    When it works well, this ganging up on the cosmos is “boring, in a good way,” Dr. Doeleman said one night that was anything but boring, explaining that the observations best proceed automatically while the astronomers all hold their breath.

    Belying the boredom is the hope that in the subtle interplay of radio waves they will see the signature of one of nature’s great calamities. Waves from different parts of the radiation cloud around Sagittarius A* would interfere with one another, producing a complicated pattern that a computer could read as a black hole.

    Imagine, Dr. Doeleman said, that someone is dipping a finger into a pond and creating ripples. If there were tidal gauges installed along the shore, you could figure out where the ripples were coming from by recording the arrival of each wave crest on the shore. One finger would make concentric circles.

    If there were two fingers doing the dipping, the ripples would interfere with one another, sometimes amplifying, sometimes canceling out. As a result, some tidal gauges would show crests combining to be extra large; others would show troughs.

    “By analyzing this pattern,” Dr. Doeleman said, “we can tell what’s going on far away.” Someone reading the pattern could distinguish whether there was just one finger or many of them in some arrangement dappling the water.

    In this case, there are antennas spread along the shore of infinity, synchronized by atomic clocks, recording the radio waves as they arrive.

    “This is the way you build a telescope as big as the world,” Dr. Doeleman said.

    Sheperd Doeleman working inside the heart of the Large Millimeter Telescope to verify the alignment of a radio wave receiver. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    If everything went right — if all the elements of Dr. Doeleman’s spider web of weather and electronics and superprecise timing held together — they would see that any given wavefront would arrive bearing the marks of interference, a complicated pattern of crests and troughs — “fringes,” in the astronomical vernacular. With enough fringes from baselines going in different directions across the sky from the various observatories, the astronomers could reconstruct a map what was happening out there, thousands of millions of light-years away.

    Seeing even one fringe from one baseline would be a triumph — it would mean they were achieving the kind of resolution needed to make a detailed image of Sagittarius A* and see if it looks like a black hole. Making that image, of course, would be another long story indeed. Until they saw that first fringe, the Event Horizon team would simply have to hold their breaths.

    That could be months. All that data would be too much to send over the Internet. Nobody would know if the whole telescope had worked until the data recorded from each separate instrument had been correlated in a supercomputer back at M.I.T. As Dr. Doeleman liked to say, “The bandwidth of a 747 loaded with disk drives is phenomenal.”

    If they are lucky, sometime later this summer or fall, then, they might see emerging from the computers at M.I.T. the first rough image of a black hole. And its size and shape could provide a judgment on general relativity, the harshest test yet a century after Einstein dreamed up the theory.

    For some theorists, breaking Einstein is the main game. “The least exciting thing would be to find general relativity works beautifully,” said Dr. Broderick, at the Perimeter Institute.

    But Dr. Doeleman says he is also excited about what he likes to call the “secret sauce” of the Event Horizon Telescope: the chance to see inside the engine that produces the monstrous energies of quasars.

    “We can see a black hole eat in real time,” he said. By following hot spots in the superhot gas swirling toward oblivion, they can even measure the rotation rate of the black hole.

    This infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where the Event Horizon Telescope team hopes to find details of the black hole that scientists believe lurks there. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

    “If something is dancing around the edge of the black hole, it doesn’t get any more fundamental than that,” Dr. Doeleman said. “Hopefully we’ll find something amazing.”

    The Plumbers’ Blues

    The first piece of Dr. Doeleman’s spider silk to break was the radio telescope in Chile. Its receiver died and had to be sent back to Europe for repairs.

    That failure put more of an onus on the Mexican telescope.

    Sierra Negra was a natural choice as the fulcrum of the Event Horizon Telescope. Not only is it centrally located, but the new Large Millimeter Telescope, with its giant dish designed for short wavelengths, is also the most sensitive radio telescope in the network. Completed in 2006 by the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics in Puebla state and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at a cost of $116 million, it is the largest and most expensive scientific project in Mexico. Its inclusion in the Event Horizon Telescope was a point of great pride to its director, Dr. Hughes, who has spent the better part of the last decade getting the instrument up to snuff.

    “People want to bring their equipment and their experiments here now,” he said.

    During a dry run, however, the astronomers discovered that the telescope’s new receiver was afflicted by a mysterious electrical buzz.

    Astronomical history is replete with mysterious hisses and buzzes that turn out to be cosmic breakthroughs. One incident 50 years ago with two Bell Labs astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, turned out to be the signal of cooling radiation from the Big Bang itself, and resulted in a Nobel Prize.

    But this was not the cosmos calling. The hum did not interfere with the data, but it did interfere with pointing the antenna. Normally, to lock onto a radio source, the astronomers would rock the telescope back and forth to find the strongest signal, like a cross-country driver trying to tune into a distant Yankees game.

    The Event Horizon Telescope

    A network of telescopes as big as the Earth is trying to measure the boundary of what astronomers suspect is a supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Placing the telescopes as far apart as possible increases the array’s ability to discern small details and effectively increases the resolution of the resulting images.

    Strong sources like Jupiter still came booming through above the noise. But the buzz was louder than faint sources like Sagittarius A* at the galactic center, meaning that the astronomers could not be sure they were recording data from the right target. As a result, the Mexican telescope had to sit out the first official observing run.

    Several days of troubleshooting failed to make the buzz go away. “We’re just plumbers here,” Dr. Doeleman said one morning.

    To make matters worse, the expert on the receiver, Gopal Narayanan of the University of Massachusetts, was called home for a family emergency.

    Continue reading the main story

    If the astronomers did not solve the problem, they would be down to just four sites in the network. “Every antenna is precious,” Dr. Doeleman said, but the prolonged absence of the Large Millimeter Telescope could be crippling. Losing Mexico on top of Chile would leave the astronomers with less than half the information they had hoped for.

    “We’re on a slippery slope,” Dr. Doeleman said.

    He and his colleagues hit on a plan. Unable to isolate the noise, they decided to see if they could use a less sensitive but quieter receiver to point the telescope, and then switch over to the new receiver to collect data. They could calibrate the pointing difference between the receivers by aiming each one in turn at a bright object like Saturn and measuring the offset.

    “It’s a lot of handwork,” Dr. Doeleman said. “Once you know the offset, you can lock in with a computer model.”

    “What do I feel about this project?” Dr. Doeleman said that afternoon as the team was assembling to go back up to the telescope, raising his voice so everyone could hear. “We’re going to succeed. It’s going to take a lot of innovation, but we have a good team to do it.”

    At the time, Dr. Doeleman was not planning on being part of that team. He was scheduled to go home to his family the next morning, having already extended his stay in Mexico once.

    Dr. Hughes urged him to stay, saying the team needed his leadership and expertise.

    Doing so would require an intense Skype conversation with his family, Dr. Doeleman said.

    Dr. Hughes replied that it should be an easy decision, given the scientific consequences.

    The Kid Stays in the Picture

    Dr. Doeleman packed his bags for the long ride to the airport. But in the morning, looking distraught, he announced he had changed his mind and would stay.

    Two of his postdocs were new to observational astronomy, the Mexican scientists who had joined them were new to the Event Horizon procedures, and Dr. Narayanan, the receiver expert, was not back yet. The telescope’s chances of helping to produce a black hole image were hanging in the balance. “If we were going to have any chance of doing it, I had to stay,” Dr. Doeleman said.

    His reward was another night of snow in the dish, a real heartbreaker because for the first time, everything else was working.

    Twelve hours later, the team made its third try. The atmosphere in the control room was almost giddy as the telescope swung into position, staring at the black hole in the fiery galaxy M87.

    Sheperd Doeleman, second from left, watching data being received inside the control room of the Event Horizon Telescope network. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

    Dr. Doeleman, wearing a scarf knitted by his wife, typed into his laptop that the Large Millimeter Telescope was taking data. At last.

    “That’s a real moment,” he told Dr. Narayanan, who had just returned from home. “That’s a real moment, Gopal. That’s huge.

    “We’re gonna image a black hole,” he said, beaming. “That’s what we’re here for. This is it. We’re doing it.”

    The connection established, they settled down to be bored — but an hour later, the weather went bad and they had to stow the telescope to keep the snow out.

    Just before dawn, five long hours later, the weather cleared enough for the telescope to rejoin the network, now focused on the Milky Way center.

    Laura Vertatschitsch, one of Dr. Doeleman’s postdoctoral researchers at the Center for Astrophysics, said, “My heart was beating a million miles a minute, and I was smiling from ear to ear.”

    High-fives were exchanged — but two hours later, the sun had risen too high for them to continue. The black-hole party now became a race against time and weather. The next night, the Mexican telescope was shut out by the weather completely.

    As Dr. Doeleman put it later in an email, “There were a couple of nights where the other sites were having an E.H.T. party and we were at home in PJs doing the crossword. Maddening.”

    Getting Out of Dodge

    Dr. Doeleman did finally go home, satisfied that his team was in good shape to carry on, while he watched by laptop and Skype. Dr. Narayanan took apart the receiver and traced the troublesome noise to mechanical vibrations, which he treated with duct tape. After all, he said, duct tape had helped save Apollo 13.

    Naturally, that was when things started working.

    They were now down to their last official chance to spin the silk. The weather was not promising, Dr. Vertatschitsch said later by email, but they went up Sierra Negra anyway. They spent half the night going through their piggyback routine to point the telescope, writing computer code on the spot. “It’s hard to describe,” she wrote, “but there is an adrenaline that comes with this high-stakes problem-solving.”

    Then they clicked with the Event Horizon Telescope for good, first for Virgo and then for Sagittarius, collecting data until dawn. Afterward, some of the astronomers ran out and took a selfie in front of the telescope, celebrating, Dr. Vertatschitsch said in an email, “the sweat, the lack of sleep, the exhaustion and the pure joy of an experiment. It’s the moments you live for.”

    Members of the Large Millimeter Telescope team taking a selfie.

    From afar, Dr. Doeleman had his own moment. “I wasn’t there,” he said later. “Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get out of Dodge.”

    That night marked the end of the Event Horizon Telescope’s official observing run, but as it happened, there was an encore. California, Arizona and Mexico were available for an extra night. That, said Dr. Vertatschitsch, was the best night of all.

    “It was the best weather we had seen all trip,” she said. Dr. Narayanan’s taped-up receiver was able to do the pointing by itself.

    “All I had to do was go,” Dr. Doeleman said later. “On the final two nights, the clouds parted. Everything comes out biblical in the Event Horizon Telescope.”

    A Sneak Peek

    Two weeks later, Dr. Doeleman, looking relaxed and 20 years younger, with his wife and two children in tow, traveled to New York to give a talk in the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He said in a separate conversation that some 200 terabytes of data — about as much as is contained in the printed material in the Library of Congress — were then on the way to M.I.T., the bandwidth of that metaphorical 747 in action.

    This year, the 100th since Einstein presented his Theory of General Relativity, the calendar is chock-full of meetings and celebrations devoted to the theory. Perhaps during this yearlong party, astronomers may finally know if the dark shadow of eternity is smiling at us through the star clouds of Sagittarius.

    The computers are already running.

    At the end of April, an email went out to the Event Horizon collaboration, dense with graphs, the result of correlating the observations from one night between two mountains — Sierra Negra and Mauna Kea, in Hawaii.

    They showed striking signs of an interference pattern. The fringes were there. The spider silk had held.

    “I had no idea I could hold my breath that long!” Dr. Doeleman said.

    See the full article here.

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