The consensus among the scientific community is that black holes are real. However, we have never actually seen one. Their existence was predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity and subsequent measurements concerning the speed of orbiting stars and gravitational waves have provided strong corroboration. Astronomers may finally be on the cusp of getting their first photographic glimpse of a black hole—a direct view of the space-time crushing monster from the heart of galaxy M87.
On Wednesday, astronomers across the globe will hold “six major press conferences” simultaneously to announce the first results of the Event Horizon Telescope, when they are expected to unveil the first-ever photograph of a black hole.
The effort conscripted a team of astronomers from around the world and an interconnected web of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). These telescopes collectively have the strength to peer far enough into the core of the Milky Way to collect visual data from Sagittarius A, which has the mass of four million suns. With a five night window of viewing earlier this month—which was dependent on weather conditions—the Event Horizon Telescope observed the millimeter radio waves emanating from Sagittarius A.
Once the images are received, scientists will have to aggregate an enormous amount of data—which is likely happening at this very moment—using a technique called interferometry, equivalent to using about ten thousand laptops, to combine radio waves.
Since black holes emit no light, they can’t directly be seen, but astronomers expect the resulting image to basically be the shadow of a black hole reflected off its super-heated accretion disk—which should look something like an asymmetrical halo of light surrounded by a dark circle.
While the image will be haunting and incredible in its own right, the knowledge gained may be more important. A direct visual observation of a black hole, even though it’s only the shadow, could help answer the question of whether general relativity breaks down close to a black hole. If the image suggests as much, it could provide evidence for alternative theories of gravity and potentially progress toward resolving some of the contradictions between relativity and quantum theory.
The image—which astronomers have been attempting to capture for a decade—could also help answer whether or not pulsars orbit black holes and how their accretion disks eject vast jets of subatomic particles.
Astrophysicist Thomas Krichbaum of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy says understanding the nature of black holes will have crucial ramifications. “It is important to understanding the evolution of galaxies, from the early formation of black holes to the formation of stars and later to the formation of life,” he says. “This is a big, big story. We are just contributing with our studies of black hole jets a little bit to the bigger puzzle.”
Awesome New Infrared Goggles Could Help Blind People ‘See’ Surroundings
People who are blind or deal with low vision face a unique number of challenges in their daily lives, ranging from accessing published material to holding a job or living on one’s own.
However, emerging infrared technology under research could help the blind and visually impaired navigate the world around them using a pair of innovative goggles.
In new research recently published and yet to be peer-reviewed, Manuel Zahn and Armaghan Ahmad Khan at Germany’s Technical University of Munich explored how their 3D camera and haptic feedback armband can assist people with low vision.
“Even in the present era, visually impaired people face a constant challenge of navigation,” the pair wrote. “The most common tool available to them is the cane. Although the cane allows good detection of objects in the user’s immediate vicinity, it lacks the ability to detect obstacles further away.”
The two students’ design deploys two infrared cameras placed in a 3D-printed goggles prototype to get a stereoscopic view that is transformed by a small computer into a map of the user’s surroundings. The infrared gear also works in the dark. The armband then uses 25 actuators arranged in a grid that vibrates when users come close to objects while also assisting them in their orientation. As users walk near obstacles, the vibration intensity of the actuators increases.
In tests, subjects enjoyed roughly 98 percent accuracy while getting through obstacle pathways, with all five participants completing the course in their first run. After two additional runs, the volunteers were able to navigate the obstacles more rapidly.
Zahn and Khan frequently cited Microsoft’s Kinect motion detection system for the Xbox in their study, but the pair are confident that their own setup will be far smaller, cheaper and less conspicuous than the gaming device.
The new headset could offer an interesting opportunity for blind and partially sighted people to clear the myriad obstacles they face when performing regular tasks or navigating the world around them.
NASA Finds “Unusual” Signs of Life on Mars
New research unveiled on Sunday by NASA could point to the existence of life on the Red Planet, as well as a range of other exciting possibilities.
On Sunday, the space agency generated buzz with a statement about the latest find by its Curiosity rover: rocks that contain organic carbon, which may indicate the existence of ancient bacteria or any other diverse examples of “complex organic molecules formed by life.”
While analyzing rocks and other sediment collected by the rover across the Red Planet, researchers found an ancient carbon cycle that could have a “biological basis” and resembles the types of fossilized remains of microbial life discovered in parts of our own planet that date back some 2.7 billion years.
A tell-tale sign could be found in the two stable isotopes – 12 and 13 – that were found in the Martian carbon.
While the find offers tantalizing hope that life may have existed on Mars, the researchers are holding out hope that they can find other indicators of what caused these carbon signatures.
“On Earth, processes that would produce the carbon signal we’re detecting on Mars are biological,” said Prof. Christopher House at Penn State University, the lead author of the study. “We have to understand whether the same explanation works for Mars, or if there are other explanations, because Mars is very different.”
Indeed, a complex range of different factors may make biological processes radically different on Mars than on Earth. The Red Planet, for example, is far smaller, colder, and has weaker gravity as well as different gases in its atmosphere. Likewise, Martian carbon could be circulating in the absence of any life, unlike here on Earth.
“There’s a huge chunk of the carbon cycle on Earth that involves life, and because of life, there is a chunk of the carbon cycle on Earth we can’t understand, because everywhere we look there is life,” noted Curiosity researcher Andrew Steele from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.
Researchers are looking into the widespread existence of the simple organic molecule methane as a potential telltale sign of microbial life, with the focus of exploration lying near the Gale Crater – a deep lake that is 3.5 billion years old and is said to store complex organic molecules and many of the key ingredients for the existence of ife.
“Defining the carbon cycle on Mars is absolutely key to trying to understand how life could fit into that cycle,” Steele noted. “We have done that really successfully on Earth, but we are just beginning to define that cycle for Mars.”
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