The Adler 'Scope
Scientists release first close-up photo of a black hole
Black Holes are incredible beasts… Nothing can escape from them and yet they power quasars—the brightest beacons in the Universe. They warp space, bending light, and slow time to a stopping point. In their hearts lurks a singularity where the laws of physics break down. But they are shrouded in mystery. We have lots of evidence that they must exist, from Einstein’s equations of Gravity to the swirling dance of stars around them. But no one had ever seen a black hole. Until now…
We’re excited to share that today, Wednesday, April 10, scientists released the first close-up picture of the region around a black hole, an incredibly significant scientific result!
The photo came from a project called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). It is an international collaboration aiming to capture the first image of the region around a black hole by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Radio telescopes used in this project are located in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and the South Pole.
The science team imaged the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy known as M87. M87 is an elliptical, or round-shaped, galaxy located about 55 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Virgo. It is a monster galaxy, weighing in at over 10x our own Milky Way (no slacker itself!). M87 sits in the center of the Virgo cluster of galaxies so we think it got so large by swallowing up other galaxies.
Just like its host galaxy, the M87 black hole is also a monster… it contains as much mass as about 6.5 billion of our Suns. It is one of the largest black holes we know about. The two facts are probably related. The rich environment of M87 provided lots of gas, dust, and stars for the black hole to feed on!
Wow! How Did they do it?
In short, radio waves!
No one sees light directly from the black hole… it is, after all, a place from which nothing, not even light, can escape! What the team imaged are radio waves (light) coming from gas in orbit around the black hole.
The process of combining light from multiple radio telescopes spread over thousands of miles (known as interferometry) made it possible to see finer details than possible with a single telescope. The farther the telescopes are spread the finer the details we can see. That’s why having radio telescopes from all over the world—including the South Pole!—was so important. Someday we might even have radio telescopes in space to make even sharper images.
So, what exactly am I looking at in this image?
The image shows the “shadow” of the black hole, the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself. The black hole’s boundary—the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name—is around 3x smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 25 billion miles across. The team calculated that the original estimate of the mass of the black hole, 6.5 billion times the mass of our Sun, appears to be correct. They also determined that the black hole is rotating clockwise.
We can use this image to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Scientists ask, “Do we see what we were expecting to see?” For example, according to general relativity, black holes are expected to be spherical. The EHT team says that, to within 10 percent, the black hole appears to be spherical.
The ring of light in the image is related to the bending of light near a black hole. Light emitted by the gas swirling into a black hole can stream directly to our telescopes, but it can also wrap around the black hole, its path bent by the tremendous force of gravity. This bending, or “lensing,” of light produces a ring around the black hole at a distance where the photons can orbit just balanced between being captured by the gravity of the black hole and flying out to infinity. At the same time, the black hole’s fierce gravity piles the material orbiting the black hole up into a last stable orbit before it plunges quickly into the black hole. That can also create ring structures… so it’s a bit complicated!
Space is freaking awesome! Where can I learn more?
From April 10-14, 2019, visit us here at the Adler Planetarium and interact with our facilitators as they present fun activities about how we study the Universe using a type of light that our eyes cannot see: ultraviolet light. Or view our small temporary addition (starting 4/12) on black holes in our Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass exhibition!
Then check out our Space Visualization Lab to interact with Adler astronomers, cutting-edge images, and visualizations about the black holes at the centers of our Milky Way Galaxy and M87!
You can also take part in a Zooniverse.org citizen science project to help scientists study images taken using infrared light and gamma rays:
The First Planetarium in Space
By Jesus Garcia (Electronics Design System Engineer and Educator) and Dr. Geza Gyuk (Astronomer).
On Wednesday, April 17, 2019, the Adler sent its first mission to space! This ambitious project was a collaboration between students, scientists, and volunteers from around Chicagoland.
Last spring, students from the ITW David Speer Academy, a public four-year charter high school in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood in Chicago, worked with Far Horizons Systems Engineer and Educator Jesus Garcia, to develop concepts for the Adler’s first “ThinSat.” ThinSats, the brainchild of nanosatellite pioneer Prof. Bob Twiggs, are very tiny satellites (think the size of a slice of bread), that are launched into space in an extremely low Earth orbit (ELEO)—only a couple of hundred kilometers up. At that low altitude, there is still enough drag that the satellite will come down to Earth in only a week. But in that week, a ThinSat will travel millions of miles around the Earth and experience the hard vacuum and high radiation of outer space.
This collaboration between the Speer Academy and the Adler aims to increase participation of underrepresented minorities in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Working alongside professional engineers and scientists over a period of twenty weeks, the students acquired the necessary skill-sets in electronic hardware, soldering, programming, and data analysis to aid in the development of the Adler’s first ThinSat. The team of students and Garcia settled on an ambitious goal of measuring the changing colors of light as seen by a satellite in orbit as it passes over different regions of the Earth. With these measurements, students will learn how to recognize different features of land and water just by studying the wavelengths of light they reflect—a crucial first step on the way to identifying similar features on the surfaces of exoplanets.
Not only did the interns develop their technical skills, but they also practiced science communication, presenting their work to the public in the Space Visualization Lab at the Adler Planetarium and to a large audience at ITW Headquarters.
Building on the concepts developed by the ITW Speer students, Adler’s Far Horizons team of engineers, scientists, and volunteers assembled a multiband photometer that will measure the brightness of the Earth in six different colors. A very similar device is being designed by students in the Adler’s NITELite program to measure the light coming from different types of streetlights in the Chicagoland area.
The Adler’s first mission to space, launched along with 83 other ThinSats from around the nation as a secondary payload on Northrop Grumman’s Antares 110 launch vehicle.
The Antares launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, as an International Space Station resupply mission. The ThinSats were attached to the 2nd stage of the rocket, which is purposely left in an ELEO so that it will burn up quickly. Once the main payload was safely on its way to the ISS, the ThinSats were deployed and spent a week flying independently.
Far Horizons is the Adler’s own space exploration program. Its mission has always been to bring real space exploration down to Earth and into the hands of students, volunteers, and the public. A particular strength of Far Horizons has been our ability to engage teens from diverse backgrounds. For more than a decade, we’ve designed and built experiments with participants and sent them to the edge of space aboard high-altitude balloons. Now, with ThinSats, we’ve finally made our long-awaited jump into space!
Much like Chicago weather, WiFi can be unpredictable. We couldn’t go live, but we did get this video! Congratulations to the scientists, volunteers, & students who made this possible—the #ThinSat is space-bound! #Antares @NASA_Wallops pic.twitter.com/eBuKRU50Dc— Adler Planetarium (@AdlerPlanet) April 17, 2019
Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM Series: Meet Jessica
“Chicago’s Black Women in STEAM” is a series on The Adler ’Scope that highlights the awesome women of Chicago who are doing amazing things in science, technology, engineering, art, and math fields here in our own community. Meet women of varying ages, backgrounds, and interests and learn their unique stories.
Jessica Nicole Esquivel
Particle Physicist, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Fermilab
What first sparked your interest in physics?
When I was 11 my mom and aunts took the family to NASA in Houston. While there, we took the VIP tour and got to see firsthand the astrophysicists at work. Needless to say, I was completely bored—not one person yelled, “Houston we have a problem!” There were no computer screens of astronauts floating in space, no aliens, or spaceships blowing up! My mom was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t impressed, but she knew I had a knack for math and science, so she continued to foster that interest.
As an 8th grader, my mom and aunts persuaded me to apply for a STEM camp meant for high-schoolers. I applied and was accepted. This was the first time that I was doing basic physics problems dealing with Newton’s laws. Looking back, those problems were easy, but for an 8th grader I struggled with them, and I think that’s why I thought it was so intriguing. I had to work at these problems to crack the code—it didn’t come easy to me. Not to mention I could then predict what would happen to a ball I threw up in the air, that was pretty cool! Once I got to college and took my first college-level course, I knew that physics was what I wanted to study. I learned about quantum superposition and *Schrodinger’s cat. It blew my mind, and as they say, the rest is history!
*Schrodinger’s cat: a thought experiment that presents the scenario of a hypothetical cat that is simultaneously both dead and alive, a state known as quantum superposition.
You are one of about 150 Black women (IN HISTORY) to obtain their PhD in Physics, and the second Black female to receive a PhD in Physics from Syracuse University. What was it like to be among the first to achieve such a task? What were some of the obstacles you faced in being a minority in Physics?
That number is still so jarring to me. I found out that there were only about 150 black women with a PhD in physics while in graduate school. I was on the verge of quitting. I was having such a hard time keeping up with my studies and just belonging. I was the only black, Latina, and lesbian in my classes. I stood out like a sore thumb, and I felt isolated. I also didn’t feel a sense of belonging at the university or city level. The micro-aggressions I encountered, not only in the classroom but going to the mall or getting groceries, were so exhausting!
Coming from Texas where it is always sunny, to a place that is grey most of the year was a lot. I spent most nights staying up (struggling) to do my homework and calling both my wife (then girlfriend) and mom just crying because I couldn’t figure it out while my peers were working as a group to complete assignments. Imposter syndrome set in hard! I knew my peers were working as a group to do the homework assignments. I didn’t feel smart enough to join them, and I was scared I was going to be found out as a fraud. I was there as a fellow which meant I didn’t have to TA for my stipend and I feared my peers were going to think I was a “diversity quota” if I started studying with them and they found out I wasn’t smart. I knew I was good at research, I had done internships during undergrad in particle physics, working on the MicroBooNE collaboration, and optical radiation physics, working as a Software Development Analyst for Northrop Grumman, but I was struggling. I had failed my qualifying exam and was on the verge of quitting.
It was then that the head of my STEM fellowship told me about the number of black women with PhDs in physics. I was shaken. I had no idea that there were so few of us. It was eye-opening to learn and for some reason that gave me the fuel I needed to finish my courses. I also was lucky to have an amazing advisor who believed I could be a physicist, Mitch Soderberg, and two mentors, Duncan Brown and Jedidah Isler who were committed to my success. I’m close to a year into my postdoc and still can’t believe that I’m a Dr.
Can you tell us more about the work you did in graduate school—what exactly are neutrinos?!
Oh, neutrinos are so interesting and fun! They are subatomic particles which means they’re much smaller than atoms. Neutrinos also don’t interact much with their surroundings and that’s what makes them so difficult to study, and also so darn interesting! About 100 trillion pass through our bodies every second unperturbed, so we need massive detectors and a very large neutrino source to see one of them in action. Neutrinos have been coined ghost particles because of their ghostly properties and neutrino physicists are ghost hunters! I’ve been working on getting that last one to stick, no luck as of yet.
During my graduate research, I used really innovative machine learning techniques, similar to those used in Facebook’s facial recognition software, to detect interesting neutrino collisions. The experiment I worked on, MicroBooNE, is built to be able to take really high-resolution snapshots of what happens when a neutrino collides with an atom in our detector. I simulated large amounts of these neutrino collision images and used these to train a computer to recognize different types of neutrino interactions. By using machine learning, I was able to probe interesting interactions of low energy neutrinos, something that hadn’t been possible before.
In the past, you have described physics and outreach as having a symbiotic relationship for you. Can you expand on that for us?
I have been interested in physics outreach for as long as I’ve been interested in physics! To me, they go hand in hand. The importance of community outreach and inspiring the public to understand the benefits of science was instilled early on in my scientific career. I began doing physics outreach as a sophomore in college organizing “Fiesta Physics”—a festival that was hosted by the physics department every semester that invited under-represented minorities from surrounding elementary schools to the university to learn and interact with a multitude of science experiments.
To me, community outreach has two major benefits: to promote scientific literacy and the importance of physics research, and to foster a curiosity and passion for physics. One of the many barriers I’ve encountered in my decades worth of outreach experience is the lack of trust society has towards physicists. This in part has to do with the lack of diversity in physics. There have been many instances in history where scientists have used a biased view of science as a tool of oppression, racism, and sexism. By including a more diverse cross-section of the population in physics studies, the public interest and trust in physics and physicists will increase as well.
That’s why I believe community outreach and increasing diversity in physics are symbiotic. By focusing efforts on outreach, especially to underrepresented minorities, you foster excitement in physics that leads to a future of diverse physicists that can then better encompass the interests of society as a whole, which in turn makes community outreach more accessible to a diverse population.
In what ways do you feel STEAM can be made more accessible to minorities?
I think a lot of times organizations view equity, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I) as buzz words. They use these in recruiting pamphlets and during recruitment events. They then talk about how that organization can benefit from a more diverse workforce, essentially cashing in on the diversity hire. While to a certain extent, I do agree that organizations will thrive with a more diverse workforce due to the difference in experience and the ways in which we all think, we not only have to focus efforts on recruitment but also retention, and to do the latter, there needs to be a cultural shift at the organizational level. I only applied to postdoc positions at Fermilab specifically because of this reason. Being at Fermilab for 3 years as a graduate student I got to see firsthand that their ED&I efforts weren’t just surface level.
Not only is Fermilab actively working towards a more equitable and diverse workforce, but they also are working tirelessly to make sure the culture at the lab is an inclusive one. An example of this are the signs in conference rooms discussing best practices when it comes to working collaboratively like allowing everyone to voice opinions, to not be aggressive or dismissive towards peers and to share the space. Another example of inclusiveness hangs in Fermilab’s Atrium. There are an array of country flags hanging in the atrium to show how many countries Fermilab collaborates with and hanging there among those flags is also a Pride Flag. As a lesbian, seeing Fermilab make such a visible and intentional stand for LGBTQIA+ physicists, technicians, and engineers at the lab is just another way of fostering an inclusive work environment.
What advice would you give to young girls of color who are interested in pursuing careers in STEAM?
Be stubborn! There will be so many people telling you that you don’t belong, you’re not smart enough, you can’t hack it, but all of that is noise, try and tune it out! I’m not special or a genius, I have a passion for physics and don’t like when people try to tell me what I can’t do. If I can do it, so can anyone! There’s this sense that only wicked smart people can hack it into STEAM or that there’s a STEAM gene people are born with. I think that’s crazy talk! You learn as you go, and I think the most important thing to remember is that you are not your failures. That was a hard pill for me to swallow and something I’m still working through but the scientific process is built on failing! We have a theory, we test it, and a lot of the times that theory is wrong. That doesn’t mean you aren’t smart or you shouldn’t continue testing other theories! Scientific exploration would come to a screeching halt if at every failed theory a scientist would quit.
Where do you hope to be professionally in ten years?
I’m not sure! I’m always going back and forth about whether to stay in academia or go into industry. I really enjoyed using machine learning in my graduate work and I think that I would have a lot of fun using these tools as a data scientist. The draw of new physics is also really really compelling! The only constant I know for sure is that wherever I land, I need to have an outlet to do STEM outreach. If that means that I need to build that infrastructure from scratch then so be it because, for me, physics isn’t physics without outreach.
Just for fun, tell us your favorite mind-blowing fact or “a-ha!” moment you encountered during your research and work as a Fermilab Postdoctoral Research Associate.
I’m still relatively new on the Muon g-2 collaboration so I’m inundated with “a-ha” moments literally every day! One thought that really stood out to me was when I attended the U.S. Particle Accelerator School a couple of months ago (yes school! we never stop learning!). It was here that I started being able to picture the physics that happens before particles even reach a detector! Being able to imagine a particle beam like a living breathing organism, and the amount of work, skill, and engineering it takes to wrangle the beam to do what we want— it’s fascinating! Being apart of a precision experiment like Muon g-2 where we need to understand all the intricacies at play is really very difficult and exciting. We need to be able to make a measurement at 140 parts per million precision which is like around 7,000 puzzles with each puzzle being 1,000 pieces and only having 1 missing piece! That level of precision is mind-blowing in and of itself and that’s not even talking about the awesome potential new physics we are probing!
Adler Staff Share What Inspires Them
It’s Astronomy Day! On such a day we could seize the opportunity to talk about what it feels like to look up through a telescope or how our collections experts preserve centuries-old astrolabes or the latest updates on our Adler teen-led underwater meteorite hunt… but as I watch the people around me do what they do every day the question that pops into my mind is, “Why?” What inspires each of us to be a part of this amazing community? And what road brought us here in the first place?
I started asking my fellow colleagues some of these questions and here’s a handful of their responses!
“Picture a 14-year old kid in a small industrial town in Portugal a few decades ago, watching in awe the episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos dedicated to the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler. If you had told the kid that one day he would be overseeing a world-class museum collection that includes a book signed by Kepler himself, and sharing the stories of this and many other historic items with the world, he would likely have said: ‘yeah, sure…’. Well, here’s the kid now (or a grown-up and aging version of him) doing precisely that every day at the Adler Planetarium!”
–Dr. Pedro Raposo, Curator
“In 5th grade, our school librarian pulled me aside and said he thought I’d find a book on Saturn interesting. I read it and before the end of 6th grade I’d read every book in the astronomy section of the library! That’s how I got hooked.”
–Steve Burkland, Manager of Theaters & Digital Technology
“Like many little kids, I loved the subjects of space, rocks, and dinosaurs. And as an astronomer specializing in asteroids, I can combine all those interests and make them my job!”
–Dr. Mark Hammergren, Astronomer
“I think it was Einstein’s theory of special relativity. I probably had to memorize a version of it at some point as a kid, but I never really understood what it meant until I was in graduate school—for creative writing. I was reading Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, in a coffee shop when it finally sank in: Space and time were just two ways of looking at one enormously weird thing, our thing, the placetime where we live and read and drink coffee. It melted my brain in the best way, and I made a conscious decision to rearrange my life so I could learn more about physics and astronomy and shout what I learned to anyone who would listen.”
–Aubrey Henretty, Senior Writer
“I knew zero about space when I took this job (not like zero as in Will Ferrell, ‘my favorite planet is the Sun’ type zero), but my knowledge was VERY limited. So, I decided to take on the biggest challenge of my career: learning a new subject matter. As such, I can honestly say that over the course of the last four years, I’ve literally learned something new every day. Thank you to my colleagues for being so nice and being such great teachers! Space is indeed freaking awesome!”
–Erin Wilson, Director of Marketing
“When I first got into history and the museum world, I realized that I didn’t have access to the world-class collections and museums that many city dwellers often take for granted. In my current role, I get to help bring the amazing collections of the Adler to people across the world no matter where they are all while encouraging the same people to stop and look up. Our historical collections really show that humanity has made looking up at the sky an endearing endeavor and I’m proud to get to show that history in a place that continues to inspire people to look up. As our founder Max Adler said best, we get to show that we all ‘constitute part of one Universe and that, under the great celestial firmament, there is no division or cleavage but rather interdependence and unity.’ We are all one and we are all under one sky.”
–Jessica BrodeFrank, Digital Collections Access Manager
“My first love was physics. I was amazed to learn that we can describe how the Universe works with equations, everything from the motion of planets down to the motion of subatomic particles. Now I apply my knowledge of physics to study our very own Sun!”
–Dr. Maria Weber, Astronomer
“I loved Greek and Roman mythology and knew many of the stories by heart. One day in high school, my friend started telling me about different constellations and I was like, ‘I KNOW THESE STORIES!’ I got even more excited that you can still find many of these constellations today. A whole soap opera of Greek deities and their weird relationships happening ABOVE MY HEAD!”
–Reheynah “Rey” Maktoufi, Visiting Researcher
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
‘American Space Ninja’ to be honored at WISS
On May 16, 2019, in partnership with the Adler Planetarium Women’s Board, the Adler will host its annual Women in Space Science Award Celebration (WISS). This event honors women who make significant contributions to space science and pave the way for future generations in STEM. The Adler is proud to recognize former NASA chief astronaut Peggy A. Whitson, PhD, as the 2019 Women in Space Science Award recipient.
Dr. Whitson currently holds the U.S. space-endurance record with a total of 665 days in space. Throughout her career, she performed hundreds of experiments and completed ten spacewalks, more than any other woman in the history of space exploration. In 2007, Dr. Whitson became the first woman to command the International Space Station. Still our planet’s greatest achievement of international cooperation, the ISS has been continuously inhabited since 2000, making it some of the most crucial research in space science possible. Under Dr. Whitson’s command, crew members aboard ISS Expedition 51 searched for extremophile bacteria aboard the space station, measured the charges of cosmic rays, and studied the way foods react when freeze-dried in orbit.
If her many records and accomplishments weren’t enough to merit cooperation, we might look no further than the testimony of Dr. Whitson’s fellow astronauts. Former crewmate Randy Bresnik has described her as an “American Space Ninja.” Thomas Presquet of the European Space Agency has called her “the most hardworking and strong-willing person I’ve ever met.”
Dr. Whitson will join us in May for a keynote address and a conversation with Dr. Michelle Larson, the Adler’s president and CEO. Our entire community is excited to welcome her!
Header photo: Peggy Whitson on the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
Webcomic: “That Black Hole Picture” 101
Reyhaneh (Rey) Maktoufi
The following is a webcomic created by Adler Visiting Researcher, Reheynah (Rey) Maktoufi! In this comic, learn about the recent black hole picture that was taken by the Event Horizon Telescope team.
Special thanks to Dr. Geza Gyuk, Michelle Nichols, Dr. Grace Wolf-Chase, Steve Burkland, and Orilla Fetro.
Header Image: Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. Photo credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Adler Skywatch: May 2019
Though the Sun sets later and later each evening this month, there are still plenty of fine night-sky sights in May 2019.
After sunset, look about 25 degrees above the west-northwest horizon to see the planet Mars. It’s dimmer than first magnitude in brightness, but it’s still bright enough—and colorful enough—to be easily spotted. The evening of the 7th, it’s only a few degrees away from a waxing crescent Moon. Mars spends the first half of the month in the constellation Taurus, and the second half in the constellation Gemini. By about 10 pm CDT, Mars is very low in the west-northwest.
After Mars sets, begin looking for the planet Jupiter rising in the east-southeast. It rises shortly after 11 pm CDT at the start of the month, and by 9 pm by month’s end. Unlike Mars, which gets slightly dimmer every evening this month, Jupiter gets brighter each night. Look for it low in the southeast during the hours before and after midnight. Jupiter will be to the right and slightly above the Teapot asterism that marks the constellation Sagittarius; and to the left of the s-shaped constellation Scorpius with its “heart”—the bright orange star Antares. In the late-night of the 19th and in morning darkness of the 20th, Jupiter appears near a waxing gibbous Moon. It’s low in the southwest as morning twilight brightens the sky.
By 2:30 am CDT, the planet Saturn is above the southeast horizon. It’s not as bright as Jupiter but, like Jupiter this month, Saturn also gets slightly brighter with each passing morning. It appears to the left of the Teapot asterism in the southern skies, near its “handle”. The mornings of the 22nd and the 23rd, Saturn appears near a waning gibbous Moon. As the Sun rises this month, Saturn fades from view in the southern sky.
The planet Venus this month rises in the east about an hour before the Sun. Because its rising is so close to sunrise, Venus’s visibility this month doesn’t last very long before sunlight makes it hard to see.
The planet Mercury appears so close to the Sun this month that it’s difficult or impossible to see.
The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower takes place in early May. Its peak ranges from the 5th to the 7th, with the best night forecast to be the evening of the 4th into the morning of the 5th. Fortunately, this time period falls around New Moon, so there won’t be anything to block the viewing of fainter meteors. A maximum of 10 to 30 meteors per hour can be expected under very clear, very dark skies, far from city lights. For those in the Southern Hemisphere during this time, an even better showing of Eta Aquarids is forecast. The source of these meteors the famous Comet Halley.
New Moon: May 4th
First Quarter Moon: May 11th
Full Moon: May 18th
Last Quarter Moon: May 26th
Please note: these descriptions are for the Chicago area, using Central time.
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