Exploring the Mysteries of Black Holes
It’s 9:40 p.m., but for physics majors Taylor Hutchison, Francis MacInnis and Raina Musso, the work day is just starting.
The three are working with Mark Bottorff, professor of physics, on an astronomy research project that involves spending several nights a week at Southwestern’s Fountainwood Observatory – when the weather permits.
The four are contributing to an international research project that is trying to learn more about the most powerful phenomena in the universe − massive black holes. Black holes live in the center of galaxies and are billions or even trillions of times brighter than the sun.
Researchers at The Ohio State University were lucky enough to be given six months of research time on the Hubble Telescope, which has already provided researchers with a wealth of data about the universe.
While the Hubble Telescope collects light as ultraviolet spectra, researchers at ground-based observatories have been observing the same group of black holes in optical light. They are particularly interested in the light variations produced by material near the black holes. Different sets of images, showing the variations, are compared to help researchers learn more about the shape and movement of the material.
“Understanding this will reveal how these powerful natural engines work,” Bottorff says.
Bottorff and his students have been focusing their efforts on three black holes that are located about 250 million light years away from Earth. While these black holes have been studied before, Bottorff says they have never been studied so intensively.
The research telescope at Southwestern is fitted with a camera that can capture the images the telescope finds. These photos can then be analyzed using computer software. Bottorff says he has already sent some data back to the researchers at Ohio State and they were very happy with it.
“We are very lucky to have an observatory on campus where we can get meaningful data,” Bottorff says. “Not every liberal arts college has a research telescope.”
Bottorff has been making observations for the project since January and was joined by Hutchison, MacInnis and Musso over the summer as part of the SCOPE summer research program at Southwestern.
While the project requires them to be at the observatory until 2:30 or 3 a.m. several nights a week, it hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for astronomy.
“This is definitely something I want to do as a career,” Musso says.
Musso, MacInnis and Hutchison all plan to write their physics capstone paper on one of the black holes they have observed.