MILES O’BRIEN: This is the center of our galaxy,
the Milky Way, captured in never before seen detail. And those stars, that dense bright clump,
most likely goners. They’re breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the super massive black hole that
lurks at the heart of our own Milky Way. STEPHEN EIKENBERRY: We can’t actually see a
black hole because by definition no light comes out from it. What we can see though is we can see
the material around the black hole. As the materials spirals into the black hole,
it’s kind of like water going down the drain in a sink.
We could have a very big rear bearing. MILES O’BRIEN: With support from the National
Science Foundation, University of Florida astronomer Steve Eikenberry and colleagues, are building and
operating a new class of infrared telescope instruments, designed to peel back the layers of
mystery shrouding black holes, like how they form. STEPHEN EIKENBERRY: We are really kind of
stumped and that’s one of the great mysteries in astrophysics; how do you make such a super
massive black hole and why are they so common in galaxies?
Almost every major galaxy has one. MILES O’BRIEN: He says their structure
is not complicated. STEPHEN EIKENBERRY: A black hole is actually
a pretty simple thing when it comes right down to it. It’s any object that has gravity so
strong that not even light can escape from it’s pull. MILES O’BRIEN: But the finer points,
like how they interact with their host galaxies are anything but simple.
These are some of the questions Eikenberry is exploring, using a new instrument built
for the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. STEPHEN EIKENBERRY: Is it born in the center
of this galaxy as a super massive black hole somehow? Or are they born small and
somehow are, through merger or through accretion, basically consuming material around them,
do they grow to become big later on? MILES O’BRIEN: Eikenberry also studies
smaller so-called stellar-mass black holes. A typical galaxy is chockfull of them.
They are born when a big star similar to one of these in the Tarantula Nebula dies
in a huge explosion called a Supernova. STEPHEN EIKENBERRY: So we’re really, sort of,
studying not so much the black hole but the process that gets you to the point
of forming a black hole. MILES O’BRIEN: Eikenberry says that big or small,
black holes likely function much the same, and he’s hoping to shed some
light on how they work. It would seem black holes
have really sucked him in. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.