Editorial: The cosmos continue to amaze us | Editorial

Humanity’s understanding of the universe expanded dramatically last week. On May 9, NASA released the infrared test images of the Large Magellanic Cloud, taken after the final alignment of the James Webb space telescope’s golden mirror segments.

By way of comparison, NASA also released images of galaxies in the Large Magellanic Cloud taken by the retired Spitzer space telescope’s infrared array camera. Imagine if Mr. Magoo, who sees the world as blurry shadows, was suddenly given glasses that allowed him to see everything sharply and in high definition. That’s how dramatic the differences between the two telescopes are.

Having achieved its most important benchmarks, the James Webb telescope, now 1 million miles away from Earth, will begin transmitting unprecedented images of our universe this summer after every instrument on board has been checked out and calibrated. There will be much to celebrate when the first images of a yet unidentified area of ​​space are revealed to the public in July.

If that weren’t enough news from space last week, humanity also got its first look at the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

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The black hole, known as Sagittarius A, is 27,000 light-years from Earth on one of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy. The images were captured by the collective effort of 300 scientists, 80 institutions and eight radio telescopes working in tandem under the name Event Horizon Telescope project (EHT).

The Event Horizon Telescope is so named because it’s meant to peer as closely as possible at the boundary beyond which even light can’t escape the black hole’s gravitational pull, according to a Bloomberg news report.

The EHT confirms astronomical theories about the existence of the black hole at the center of our galaxy exerting the necessary gravitational heft to hold our cosmic neighborhood with its billions of stars together.

The image confirming the existence of this black hole consists of images of nearby gas and light that Sagittarius A hasn’t swallowed. The gas forms a galactic halo around the black hole from which light can not escape. This black hole, only the second that we’ve ever recorded, is where the center of the galaxy is believed to be.

While the black hole itself has a mass equivalent to 4 million suns, the glowing donut in the image spans a relatively tiny region of space, smaller than the size of Mercury’s orbit. It’s also 27,000 light years away and shrouded in a thick haze of gas and dust, according to the Bloomberg report.

The first black hole ever recorded, M87, is 1,000 times more massive than Sagittarius A. That black hole was photographed in 2019 and is 55 million light-years from Earth.

Sagittarius A appears to be a very stable “gentle” black hole by the standards of more destructive black holes believed to be populating our galaxy and the universe beyond. The EHT project, like the Webb Telescope, will continue gathering information for decades. Every day that scientists pore over the information coming in from the furthest corners of the cosmos brings us closer to understanding how our universe operates.

Last week was one of the most consequential weeks in astronomy ever. The wild thing is that these breakthroughs promise wilder days to come.

– Adapted from an editorial in

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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