A black hole warped space-time so much that astronomers saw flashes of light from its far side
An illustration shows a black hole with a corona (the ball of white light) engulfing material flowing into the black hole. NASA / JPL-Caltech
Astronomers saw light behind a black hole for the first time.
The black hole distorted the light from X-ray explosions on its other side and bent the light towards Earth.
It further confirms Albert Einstein's theory that massive objects like black holes distort space-time.
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Scientists saw the light behind a black hole for the first time.
Since no light can pass through a black hole and come out the other side, the discovery further confirms Albert Einstein's theory that massive objects such as black holes and neutron stars distort space. This particular black hole, 800 million light years away, distorted space so much that astronomers could see X-ray explosions flashing behind it.
"Any light that goes into this black hole doesn't come out, so we shouldn't be able to see anything behind the black hole," said Dan Wilkins, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford , in a press release. "The reason we can see this is because this black hole distorts space, bends light, and spins magnetic fields around itself."
A look at the supermassive black hole M87 in polarized light reveals its swirling magnetic fields. EHT collaboration
According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, massive objects distort space-time. Instead of continuing linearly, space-time bends around it, creating curved paths that other objects must follow on their journey. That, said Einstein, is gravity.
In the same way that gravity forces a planet to orbit a star, light should follow the same curved path around objects such as black holes, which can have the mass of billions of suns. But until now no one had seen a black hole bend and distort the light behind it.
An illustration shows the curvature of spacetime around objects with mass. NASA
Wilkins and his fellow astronomers did not try to find examples of black holes that distort space-time. Instead, they observed the black hole in question with X-ray telescopes to examine its corona - a region of electrons heated to temperatures of up to a billion degrees by the black hole's immense gravity.
From this hot, spinning disk, magnetic fields break away from the black hole in huge loops, then spin and snap and explode in bright flashes of X-ray light. It looks similar to the surface of our sun (the outermost layer of which is called the corona).
"This magnetic field, which is bound and then snaps close to the black hole, heats everything around it and creates those high-energy electrons that then create the X-rays," Wilkins said.
A plasma loop bursts from the solar corona, February 24, 2015. NASA / GSFC
But when the researchers observed these flashes of light, they also discovered smaller, slightly delayed flashes of different colors. These mysterious flashes appear to be the curved light from the corona on the other side of the black hole. They were in line with the researchers' predictions of what this distant corona activity should look like.
Wilkins and his colleagues published their results in the journal Nature last week.
“When astrophysicists began speculating fifty years ago about how the magnetic field might behave near a black hole, they had no idea that one day we might have the techniques to observe this directly and put Einstein's theory of general relativity into action see, "said physicist Roger Blandford, who co-authored the paper, said in the press release.
Wilkins hopes to continue studying the corona of black holes with a future space-based X-ray observatory, the Advanced Telescope for High-Energy Astrophysics (Athena). The telescope is still in its early development; The European Space Agency plans to put it into orbit around Earth in 2031.
"It has a much larger mirror than we ever had on an X-ray telescope, and it will allow us to get higher resolution in much shorter observation times," he said. "So the picture we are currently getting from the data will be much clearer with these new observatories."
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theoretical physicist born in Germany; Developer of the theory of relativity (1879–1955)
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