GRAVITY is a new instrument that has been designed to observe regions near black holes. It is nearly up and running, and we can hope to see the first glimpse sometime later this year.
The instrument has been setup at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. GRAVITY creates a “virtual telescope” that is 200 meters across (660 feet). It combines light from multiple other telescopes at the VLT site using a process known as interferometry.
It will be used primarily to study the massively strong gravitational fields that exist close to the supermassive blackhole at the center of our galaxy. It will look towards the event horizon, but not entirely into it.
It will observe the mass accretion disc around the black hole; the material that gets pulled into a superheated disc while swirling inwards to the event horizon.
What differentiates GRAVITY from other tools used in the past, is that it can make observations for several minutes, which is in fact more than one hundred times longer than previously possible. It will explore much fainter objects, and push the accuracy and sensitivity of our new imagery to new limits.
GRAVITY will open optical interferometry to observations of much fainter objects, and push the sensitivity and accuracy of high angular resolution astronomy to new limits, far beyond what is currently possible.
Frank Eisenhauer of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics
Already at work GRAVITY has made its first observation finding the bright young star of the Trapezium Cluster. This discovery exposed one component of the cluster previously unknown to researchers, a double star.
Only at fraction of it’s full power, that observation was made with only four 1.8-meter (6-foot) VLT’s Auxillary Telescopes. In 2016 it will use four 8-meter (26-foot) VLT Unit Telescopes and start probing the regions near our galaxy’s black hole with even more clarity.
This is not the only project underway to giving us new and exciting views of black holes. Currently there are 9 telescopes positioned around the planet waiting to give us our first shot of the event horizon.
Image: NASA, ESO/GRAVITY