The Darkest Black

Image of the black hole at the centre of M87 Image from: Akiyama, K., Alberdi, A., Alef, W., Asada, K., Azulay, R., Baczko, A.-K., … Ziurys, L. (2019). First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. II. Array and Instrumentation. The Astrophysical Journal, 875(1), L2.

On April 10th The Event Horizon Telescope Collaborative released an image so exciting that I, like my parents with the Moon landing, will remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it – which happened to be on my partner’s stationary bike in our garage watching the YouTube broadcast on my smartphone.

The image that popped up on the screen before me was a ring of orange hues, weighted and thicker towards the bottom left. A dark, gaping, empty, expanse of black sat inside the ring. I was looking at a black hole and the shadow its event horizon. The orange hues were ionized gasses dizzyingly swirling around it at speeds a fraction of the speed of light; sending out their blazingly hot swansong before crossing a frontier into an area of space so unknown we can only conjecture at what is behind the veil of the event horizon.

The light from that gas travelled incredible distances of time and space before reaching not our eyes, but a group of radio telescopes spanning the globe, interconnected through an ambitious and creative collaborate effort. The end result of which is nothing short of breathtaking.

Being so enthralled in the image, I missed a good portion of what the researchers announced about their findings so far. To get an idea, I turned to the five articles that were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and thumbed through them. Between the formulas, diagrams and interpretations, I quickly saw the incredible amount of collaboration and work that went into capturing and processing the images taken between April 4 and 11, 2017. Numerous radio telescopes across the Earth all had to simultaneously have good weather, the petabytes of data that had to be transferred, standardized, aligned and consolidated. New algorithms were created, faster data processing were invented and countless hours spent to produce an image of a dark region in space, the shadow of the black hole, at the centre of M87 that spans 19 to 38 microarcseconds!

If you are like me, you want to know how much that is in light years not arcseconds and you’re not worried about the margins of error. Let us have a little fun and work that out for ourselves. We’ll need a few things: the small angle formula, the distance to M87 and a calculator.

The small angle formula (SAF) is: arcseconds = 206,265(diameter of object/ distance to object)

The distance to M87 is about 53.5 million Light Years

Let us take the upper end of the measurement because who really wants a small shadow? 38 microarcseconds become … 3.8 x 10^-5 arcseconds.

We want the diameter of the shadow, that means we rewrite the SAF to become diameter of object = (distance to object x arcseconds)/206,265 then plug in the numbers.

diameter = (53,500,000 x 0.000,038)/206,265

We get around 0.01 light years which we can convert into km by multiplying by 9.5 x 10^12 … and voila! 9.5 x 10^10 km or 95 billion km! Not bad for a shadow.

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An Evening With Friends and the Perseids

It has been a while since I have taken out my camera to do some astrophotography. In fact, I think the last time I did any was during the solar eclipse last summer.

Thankfully, I have good friends who like evening skies as much as I do and they made plans to head out and watch the Perseids–of course, they invited me along.

It was a great night full that started off with all of us muttering to ourselves trying to remember how to set up the right functions on our cameras to take shots for the evening.

After about ten minutes we were all set up and soon sitting back in our lawn chairs looking skywards. The evening did not disappoint. Between Mason jar cake, homemade mint tea cocoa and conversations that took us from catching up to discussing the hermit kingdom, we saw many bright, brief, and beautiful meteors.

Unfortunately, my camera didn’t catch any of them in the 120 pictures I took, but I was able to stack the images into a nice Morse code star trail image. Two of my friends lucked and caught a meteor in at least one of their images.

All this means that we will just have to head out again for the next big meteor shower.

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Reflections on the Total Eclipse of the Sun

I am hoping to capture some of the mystery and excitement from my girlfriend’s and my journey to Grand Island, Nebraska, to see the total solar eclipse. When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, the campsite was abuzz, not with the talk of the eclipse, but of old friends reuniting and introductions being made to individuals who would become new friends.

Later that evening, after getting settled into our campsite, the talk turned to the weather. We were getting updates and advice from Jan Anderson, who was elsewhere along the path of totality. Regrettably, we were looking at cloud cover for our campsite. Two plans were formed; one, to get up early and drive west as far as you could go past Alliance. The other, to only go a few hours east and hope for what my new friends called a sucker hole.

It was so energetic watching experienced amateur astronomers looking at all the weather models and discussing where the models did or did not overlap.

At first, my girlfriend and I were going to join the crew going west, but we decided to stay and be with friends. It was a good choice, because the next morning, after the models came out, we were forecast to have clear skies with scattered clouds. We had a lazy breakfast, then set up our cameras and telescopes with some friends from the Halifax R.A.S.C. We got all set up just as first contact arrived; the slightest piece of the Sun disappeared behind the tiniest hump of the Moon while looking through my hydrogen-alpha telescope. I chose to take pictures through my telescope, while my girlfriend used her zoom lens equipped with a white light solar filter.

About ten minutes in, after first contact, a bank of clouds started to roll in. Some of the camp was willing to wait and hope for a sucker hole, while others wanted to chase clear skies further west. My girlfriend and I packed up our gear, jumped in her car and followed her Halifax R.A.S.C. friends west on the interstate. We did our best to keep up with them, but their 85 M/Hr down the interstate was hard to keep up within the 75 M/Hr zones. Twice State Troopers puller over either the car ahead or behind of us. Not wanting to risk having a lecture from law enforcement while totality happened, we kept to the speed limits.

The Halifax crew never got pulled over, but we also did not see them again until we met up at the campsite after the eclipse. We did find a nice mile road just south of Highway 2, right on the centre line of totality. We had just enough time to set up our cameras and my telescope and to watch the last limb of the Sun disappear behind the Moon.

Within seconds of the Sun’s edge disappearing, I took off my eclipse glasses to catch a flash of light as the Sun disappeared from the sky. As the already darkening corn fields fell into the night of the Moon’s shadow, the Sun’s corona came into view as if it had always been in the sky and I was just too busy with my life to have noticed. I let out a gasp that encouraged my girlfriend to remove her eclipse glasses and look skyward.

I do not think my description could ever do it justice, nor can ay picture or painting truly capture its magnificence or awe. Even the image in my mind’s eye pales to the real sight.

The sky was dark with only the gentle glow of a few of the brighter stars and some planets to break up its hue. The corona surrounded a hole where the Sun was supposed to be. Like glass threads, the corona poured down and upwards from this hole in the sky. They did not move and were in sharp crystal like focus. Then they would move without moving, without blur. You would simply accept that they had always been in the new spot. The threads above were asymmetrical to the threads below, like the asymmetry in the face of a lover.

I took it in for a good minute before I, regrettably, decided to try and take a picture. I should have left it alone, as none of the pictures I took had any grandeur to them. I am still happy with them but should have just enjoyed the moment more. I did put my camera away after a few photos and took in the last few seconds of the eclipse. Suddenly a bright flash appeared on the outer edge of the Sun, the so-called diamond ring. I quickly put my eclipse glasses back on – totality was over.

It was only as the darkness slowly burnt off like a fog that I noticed the everything had become colder, that the birdsong had stopped, and that the ever-present song of crickets had grown louder in the shadow of the Moon. In all the experience has changed my life, but do not ask me how just yet. I am still trying to take it all in, still trying to process this wonder that is beautifully worked into the mathematical relationships of the disk size of the Moon with its distance from us in relation to the distance and disk size of the Sun: four hundred times smaller, four hundred times closer.

I am grateful for the clear skies we did get, even the campsite got it sucker hole! I am happy to have shared it with my girlfriend, to have heard the “Ohs,” and “Ahs.’ from the people on the other side of our cornfield, and thankful to possess a self-aware consciousness, granted by God or other means, to truly take in this spectacle, this wonder, this cosmic gem, this gravitationally regulated clockwork of Earth, Moon and Sun.


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