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New GRAVITY Instrument May Probe the Physics of Supermassive Black Holes

First Posted: Jan 13, 2016 10:18 AM EST
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A newly installed instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope may tell scientists quite a bit about black holes. The new instrument, called GRAVITY, will tell scientists about young stars and black holes.

The GRAVITY instrument combines the light from multiple telescopes to form a virtual telescope up to 200 meters across by using a technique called interferometry. This allows astronomers to detect much finer detail in astronomical objects than is possible with a single telescope.

"During its first light, and for the first time in the history of long baseline interferometry in optical astronomy, GRAVITY could make exposures of several minutes, more than a hundred times longer than previously possible," said Frank Eisenhauer, one of the researchers, in a news release. "GRAVITY will open optical interferometry to observations of much fainter objects, and push the sensitivity and accuracy of high angular resolution astronomy to new limits, far beyond what is currently possible."

As part of the first observations, the researchers looked closely at the bright, young stars known as the Trapezium Cluster, located in the heart of the Orion star-forming region. From the first data, researchers have already found that one of the components of the cluster was a double star.

Going forward, GRAVITY will probe what happens in the extremely strong gravitational field close to the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This is a region where behavior is dominated by Einstein's theory of general relativity. In addition, GRAVITY will uncover the details of mass accretion and jets, which are processes that both occur around newborn stars and in the regions around the supermassive black holes at the centers of other galaxies.

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