How Do You Spot a Black Hole? Look for Its ‘Burp’

BY Jenny Marder  January 26, 2012 at 3:00 PM EDT

Last week, a team of astronomers met in Arizona to discuss ambitious plans to see the unseeable. Using data pulled from more than 75 ground-based telescopes and assembled by a supercomputer, their plan is to capture, for the first time, an image of a black hole.

Shep Doeleman of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, one of the minds behind the mission, joined us from a conference in Tucson to explain.

The gas that feeds the black hole heats up into a glowing, luminous cloud, which is what scientists hope will show up in the image. “That’s really what we see,” Doeleman says. “We see its leftovers from dinner. And it’s that light that we can image with telescopes on the Earth.”

They’ve set their sights on Sagittarius A, the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, believed to weigh as much as 4 million suns.

“We have radio telescopes around the globe,” Doeleman says. They observe the supermassive black hole as it’s eating, and all the data are recorded. And we bring them back to a supercomputing facility, where we create almost a lens of the telescope, and that’s where we can start to make images.”