Astronomers make sharpest observation ever of distant galaxy

Jul 19, 2012
Astronomers make sharpest observation ever of distant galaxy

Astronomers just captured the sharpest and most direct look at a faraway galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279, containing a supermassive black whole with a mass that’s about one billion times the mass of our own Sun. The international team used three telescopes located thousands of miles apart from one another and was able to observe the galaxy at a sharpness of more than two million times finer than what the human eye can see. The galaxy is so far away, it takes more than 5 billion years for its light to reach Earth.

The telescopes were linked through a special technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), allowing them to make sharper observations by acting as a single telescope as big as the separation between them, which were made as large as possible. The team created an interferometer with a 9,447-kilometer transcontinental baseline length from Chile to Hawaii, a 7,174-kilometer baseline length from Chile to Arizona and a 4,627-kilometer baseline length from Arizona to Hawaii.

Radio waves with wavelengths of 1.3 millimeters were used to make the observations. It was the first time that such short wavelengths with such long baselines had been used, returning an angular resolution of just 28 microarcseconds, or 8 billionths of a degree.

"The observations represent a new milestone towards imaging supermassive black holes and the regions around them,” a statement from the European Southern Observancy said.

The sharp look at quasar 3C 279 is considered to be a big step toward an even larger project called the Event Horizon Telescope, which will aim to make even more powerful and longer baseline array. Eventually, it could show astronomers the shadow of the black hole from the middle of our own Milky Way galaxy.

[via Popular Science]

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