Mar 8, 2012

And an opportunity to observe Mars

Black holes are one of the most enigmatic astronomical phenomena recently known to man. Although the British geologist John Mitchell first theorized about their existence back in 1783, and this was then taken further by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity, the first empirical evidence of a supermassive black hole was obtained just seven years ago thanks to Hubble and the European Very Large Telescope.

To find out more about some of the most significant aspects of this dark side of the Universe, the City of Arts and Sciences is organising a lecture tomorrow, Thursday March 8th at 8pm, in the Santiago Grisolía Auditorium of the Príncipe Felipe Science Museum. It will be given by the astronomer of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, Marek Kukula, a world authority on distant galaxies, quasars and super-sized black holes.

"We think that the first black holes were formed very early on in the history of the Universe, not long after the Big Bang", explains the researcher, who spent nine years at NASA working with the Hubble space telescope.

Black holes are gigantic space objects so dense that their field of gravity attracts all kinds of matter and energy: they don’t even let light escape. That is why it is so difficult to detect them, but powerful observation instruments are used to do so, such as the VLA radiotelescope, Herschel, VLT and Hubble itself, among others, allowing astronomers to "look at the Universe through the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays”.

And because of this, they have been able to prove the existence of three types of black hole, many of them situated in the Milky Way: stellar, intermediate and supermassive black holes. The latter have a mass of between one million and 10 billion solar masses. “There are many black holes in our galaxy, including one in the very nucleus or core, which contains millions of times more mass than the Sun, although our galaxy is enormous and the closest black holes are hundreds of light years away” from our planet.

According to Marek Kukula, this is why these stellar objects “do not represent a threat to us”. He adds that astronomers have recently found evidence of the important role they played in the formation of galaxies, so black holes can both create and destroy. “We might say that we wouldn’t even exist if it were not for black holes”, he concludes.

Observation of Mars from the Umbracle

After the lecture, which is part of the Astronomy at the City of Arts and Sciences series, the audience can use telescopes to take part in an observation of Mars in opposition, from 9.15pm onwards, weather permitting. Known as the “red planet” because of the presence of iron oxide in the composition of its soils, Mars has the largest volcano in the solar system, the Nix Olympica, which is 25 kilometres high.