First, there was definitive proof of a black hole in the centre of our galaxy.
Then a group of scientists, including the incomparable Katie Bouman, managed to snap the first ever picture of one.
This was an incredible breakthrough because ordinarily, not even light – the fastest known thing in the universe – can escape its intense gravitational pull.
The discovery of a supermassive black hole really fired up our imaginations and increased our fascination with what is arguably the most violent phenomenon in the known universe.
Most of these breakthroughs have happened overseas. The latest one, however, could be coming to us from a little closer to home, using the same telescope that gave us that first shot of a black hole.
Eli Kasai is an optical astronomer at the University of Namibia, and he is working on a project to bring a millimeter wave telescope to the country, which will be the first of its kind in Africa. Known as the Africa Millimetre Telescope (AMT), Kasai says it could provide the “missing link in the study of black holes.”
A millimetre telescope detects radio waves from objects in space, with wavelengths in the region of one millimetre. These waves can pierce the clouds of dust that separate the earth from a black hole.
The AMT will form part of a global network of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) which has been searching for black holes in the far reaches of the universe since 2006. The existing eight telescopes combine to make one gigantic telescope the size of Earth and last year produced the first ever picture of a black hole.
With more telescopes joining the network, the AMT will be able to capture more accurate data.
With its clear skies and wide, open areas, Namibia is the ideal spot for the telescope.
Once the AMT is up and running, Namibian scientists will carry out black hole observations in March and April in collaboration with the University of Radboud. The rest of the observing time will be allocated for Namibia to carry out its own research, which Kasai believes will be a “game changer” for the country’s next generation of astrophysicists.
The University of Namibia runs a yearly scholarship program for a PhD and masters students to study astrophysics in preparation for working on the AMT project:
There’s no environment in the universe quite like a black hole. Being able to see it gives scientists a natural laboratory through which they can test long-standing theories about how objects move through space.
This is invaluable to our understanding of how black holes shape the universe, bringing experimental and theoretical physics into the same sandbox, with potentially groundbreaking results.
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