Citizen science search for black hole lenses

This simulation of a supermassive black hole shows how it distorts the stellar background and captures light, creating black hole silhouettes. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; background, ESA/Gaia/DPAC

A research team from the Open University and the University of Southampton is asking the public for help to find some of the most mysterious, elusive objects in the universe – black holes. By examining data from the SuperWASP survey, the UK’s leading exoplanet detection programme, the team hope to detect changes in starlight that may provide evidence of the existence of these black holes.

The most massive stars explode as they age, and what is left of the star after the explosion condenses into an extremely small region – a black hole. Containing about the same amount of mass as our sun and compressed into a space only a few miles in diameter, black holes have a very strong gravitational field from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Because of this, black holes can be difficult to detect, but they can often be detected when material falls into them, a process known as accretion. Due to their strong gravitational pull, the matter falls so fast that it heats up and emits strong X-rays, allowing the detection of feeding black holes.

But not all black holes eat. The black holes the team is trying to find are hidden because nothing is falling in, so there are no X-rays to reveal them. Fortunately, their gravity can still give a hint as to where they might be. A black hole’s gravity is strong enough that it can bend light from stars, acting as a magnifying glass that makes the star’s light appear brighter for a short period of time.

The team searched through an archive of over 10 years of measurements from the SuperWASP survey, trying to find stars that have been magnified by black holes. But there are a lot of stars to look at, and it’s not a job computers can do.

Members of the public can join the search by visiting the Black Hole Hunters project site. All you have to do is look at a few simple graphs of how the stars’ brightness has changed and let the team know if any look like the types of changes they’re looking for.

Adam McMaster, one of the co-leaders of the project, says: “I can’t wait to see what we will discover with the Black Hole Hunters project. The black holes we’re looking for must definitely exist, but they haven’t been discovered yet. Our search should give us the first hints about how many black holes are quietly orbiting stars, which will ultimately help us understand how such systems form.” He adds: “Finding them is a huge task, and it’s not something , which we can do ourselves, so it’s great that anyone with internet access will be able to get involved, no matter how much they know about astronomy.”

NASA’s visualization summarizes the most famous black hole systems

More info:
Project site: … p-black-hole-hunters

Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society

Quote: Black hole hunters: A citizen science search for black hole self-lensing (2022, July 11) retrieved July 11, 2022, from -science. html

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