Black holes are, without a doubt, the most mysterious and at the same time the most fascinating objects in the Universe. A supermassive one was photographed in 2019, but many roam the space. In fact, astronomers estimate that there are 100 million in our galaxy only!
So naturally, some of these black holes are hiding in space photos. Do you think you can spot them? Astronomers are seeking help in finding black holes in photographs, and you can be the one to contribute.
A research team from the Open University and the University of Southampton has published a project Black Hole Hunters. It sounds like a show on Discovery Channel, but it’s a citizen scientist project, one of many published on Zooniverse. “We know there should be a huge number of black holes out there orbiting companion stars or just drifting alone through the cosmos,” researchers write. “Lensing is one of the best (and only) ways for us to find them, but we need the help of citizen scientists.”
Royal Astronomical Society explains how black holes are formed:
“The most massive stars explode when they get old, and what is left of the star after the explosion gets condensed into an extremely small area – a black hole. Containing roughly the same amount of mass as our Sun, and compressed into a space that’s only a few miles across, black holes have a very strong gravitational field that nothing – not even light – can escape. Because of this, black holes can be difficult to detect, but they can often be found when material is falling into them – a process known as feeding. Because of their strong gravitational pull, matter falls in so rapidly that it heats up and emits strong X-rays, allowing feeding black holes to be found.”
However, the trouble is that not all black holes are feeding. And these are the ones you’re supposed to look for. They are hidden because nothing is falling in and there are no x-rays to tell us where they are. However, there’s another tell-tale sign which can give them away. “The gravity of a black hole is strong enough that it can bend light from stars,” the society writes. It acts like “a magnifying glass that makes the star’s light appear brighter for a short period of time.”
Since there are possibly 100 million of black holes, this is a job that can’t be done by computer only, or by a handful of scientists. The researchers need your eagle eye to help them find these intriguing objects. Adam McMaster, one of the co-leads of the project, said in a statement:
“I can’t wait to see what we find with the Black Hole Hunters project. The black holes we’re looking for should definitely exist, but none have been found yet. Our search should give us the first hints about how many black holes are quietly orbiting stars, eventually helping us to understand the way such systems form. Finding them is a huge task and it’s not something we could do alone, so it’s great that anyone with access to the Internet will be able to get involved no matter how much they know about astronomy.”
If you’d like to join the search, visit the Black Hole Hunters project website. All you need to do is look at a few simple graphs of how the brightness of stars changed and let the team know if any look like the types of changes they’re looking for.
[via Digital Trends; lead image credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; background, ESA/Gaia/DPAC]