Cosmic shades reveal giant black holes

British astronomers have put on their cosmic shades to get their first good views of the biggest black holes in the universe. It was not to look cool. They managed to see through a mass of obscuring dust by fitting a giant telescope with the equivalent of Polaroid sunglasses.

the filterSupermassive black holes lurk at the centres of galaxies like our own Milky Way. Hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than ordinary black holes, they are gobbling up stars whole.

Astronomers believe that these cosmic monsters, while invisible themselves because light cannot escape them, are surrounded by swirling disks of material.

However, vast clouds of dust and gas at the centre of the galaxies blocked their view of the phenomenon. Now, by fitting a polarising filter to a giant, UK-run telescope on a mountain in Hawaii, they have been able to see through this barrier.

The scientists say it works in the same way that polarising sunglasses cut out the glare on the surface of water to help a fisherman see beneath the surface.

The breakthrough using the UK Infrared Telescope, which has a 150-inch wide mirror “eye” on the sky, is reported this week in the science journal Nature.

Co-investigator on the project is my old school chum Professor Andy Lawrence, of the Institute for Astronomy in Edinburgh. He said: “For decades there has been a theory that supermassive black holes should be accumulating materials in the form of a disk, but until now this has been impossible to test due to the contamination by the dust clouds.”

The team hopes their cosmic sunglasses will help them to learn about the shape of the disks of matter around supermassive black holes and how they are formed.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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