We Could Be Just Days Away From Seeing the First-Ever Photo of a Black Hole

An artist's rendering of a growing supermassive black hole
An artist's rendering of a growing supermassive black hole
NASA/CXC/M.Weiss, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Lots of people have created simulations and illustrations of black holes based on what is currently known about these incredibly dense objects, but to date, the public has never seen an actual picture of one.

As NBC News reports, that could change next Wednesday, when a team of international scientists releases the “groundbreaking result” of a project that has set its sights on capturing the first image of a black hole. Six simultaneous press conferences will be held around the world, and the U.S. announcement in Washington, D.C. will be livestreamed starting at 9 a.m. on April 10.

The reason black holes are so hard to see is because no light can escape from them. However, scientists know they exist because of the gravitational pull they exert on nearby objects, including stars and gas. The latest endeavor to observe a black hole, dubbed the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, has built a “virtual Earth-sized telescope” by creating a network of eight radio observatories around the world.

It is believed that the announcement will concern a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star”). If scientists are successful in capturing an image of the distant black hole, it would be the equivalent of “standing in New York and counting the individual dimples on a golf ball in Los Angeles,” according to an EHT video.

As for what Sagittarius A* might look like, that remains to be seen. “We might see a crescent, brightened on one side—or a bipolar, jet-like structure,” Dan Marrone, an experimental astrophysicist at the University of Arizona, told Mental Floss in 2017. “We honestly don’t know.”

To livestream the press conference on Wednesday, visit the National Science Foundation's website.

[h/t NBC]

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

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