Israeli researchers to map supermassive black holes with NASA's Hubble

The international study led by the University of Haifa will conduct an extensive and detailed mapping of the vicinity of a supermassive black hole to understand its growth and impact on its galaxy.

Artist impression of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Artist impression of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Haifa is starting a new international academic initiative to study black holes using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The new campaign, done alongside Princeton University, University of Göttingen, Ruhr-University Bochum and Tel Aviv University, will focus on mapping out the vicinity of black holes to help scientists understand how they grow over time and gather material in what will be the most accurate and extensive mapping efforts of its kind to date.

Getting to use the Hubble Space Telescope is no easy feat. In fact, hundreds of researchers apply to use it each year, and only around 10% actually get approved.

The reason for this high demand is the technical capabilities of Hubble, NASA's flagship space telescope that is one of the few pieces of technology that can precisely scan the very depths of the infinite reaches of the cosmos.

Though NASA plans to soon launch the James Webb Space Telescope later this month to replace Hubble as its flagship space telescope of choice, Hubble remains an invaluable technological resource for the field of astronomy.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (credit: Wikimedia Commons)NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And studying black holes is already difficult enough.

Black holes are, in essence, just massive concentrations of gravity so strong that nothing, not even light, is able to escape.

According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Tsvi Piran, they act like traps. You can get in, but nothing can get out. It is impossible to see inside it, or even see it directly.

Scientists weren't even sure they existed 20-30 years ago. The only way we know the black hole exists is because it has enormous gravitational pull and this enormous gravitational pull influences matter around it.

These black holes are believed to be formed by a large amount of matter collapsing into a tiny space, something that happens when a star dies, which is why many black holes are thought to be dead stars.

But this is not necessarily the case for supermassive black holes. These black holes, as the name implies, are enormous and reside in the centers of most, if not all, large galaxies. 

The Milky Way galaxy where Earth resides is no exception, with a supermassive black hole estimated to have a mass of around 3.7-4.3 million solar masses (a measure of mass used in astronomy, with one solar mass being roughly equivalent to the weight of the Sun and about 333,000 times the mass of Earth).

Unlike other black holes, how supermassive black holes are formed is still unclear. 

An artist's impression of a black hole accretion disk. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)An artist's impression of a black hole accretion disk. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is thought that black holes gather material rapidly from the surrounding environment and are surrounded by what is known as an "accretion disk." These disks consist of fast-rotating high-temperature gases that give off light - though the black holes themselves do not.

But our understanding of this process may be very much incomplete.

That is what was thought by Prof. Doron Chelouche of the University of Haifa's Haifa Center for Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics. In an earlier study, Chelouche examined the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole at the center of the MRK 279 galaxy, a galaxy several hundred million light-years away from Earth.

Now, he will lead this international team to once again study the MRK 279 galaxy's supermassive black hole - only this time, they'll be using Hubble. 

A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated NASA artist's concept illustration. (credit: REUTERS/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/HANDOUT)A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated NASA artist's concept illustration. (credit: REUTERS/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/HANDOUT)

The study will use the space telescope's high-resolution equipment to study the ultraviolet, optical and infrared radiation from the black hole, which is active, gathering material with its accretion disk and rapidly growing.

This is important because by studying an accretion disk, one can learn how fast the black holes grow and how it influences the galaxies surrounding them.

And the only way to properly study and measure it is with Hubble.

“During the accretion process, the gas heats up to high temperatures and its properties can be measured. Using Hubble Space Telescope’s abilities to provide accurate measurements at the ultraviolet, optical and infrared sections of the electromagnetic spectrum, we can get a more precise understanding of the immediate vicinity of the black hole,” Cherlouche explained in a statement. 

“The Hubble Space Telescope is currently the only device that has the appropriate spectral coverage and resolution to allow such a study.”

Learning about the accretion disk of a black hole and how they grow and affect its galaxy is important, not only for understanding the universe, but understanding how our own galaxy, the Milky Way, formed, is influenced by its own supermassive black hole and how to sustain the conditions necessary for life to emerge in the vast universe.

“This is the beauty of basic science in general, and of astronomy, in particular,” Chelouche explained. “It drives supportive technological innovation across many disciplines and platforms and may herald a revolution in our understanding of our place in the universe and its governing laws, not unlike quantum physics, which started off as basic science and is nowadays at the operational core of our digital world.” 

Time will tell what this study can uncover about black holes as more research is undertaken to understand some of the most mysterious and terrifying phenomena that populate the infinite reaches of space.