Astronomers want your help to spot hidden black holes

Black holes are among the most mind-blowing objects in the universe. They are so dense that anything beyond their event horizon, even light, cannot escape. This is where they get their name from, as the black hole itself is impossible to see. Fortunately for researchers, many black holes are surrounded by material like dust and gas, and when this material falls into a black hole, it can emit bursts of X-rays that allow them to locate the black hole.

But this is not the case for all black holes. Some don’t absorb matter, which means they don’t emit x-rays and are much harder to locate. Now, a citizen science project is inviting members of the public to participate in the search for these “hidden” black holes.

This simulation of a supermassive black hole shows how it distorts the starry background and picks up light, producing silhouettes of black holes. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; background, ESA/Gaia/DPAC

The project, called Black Hole Hunters, searches for clues to the location of black holes left behind by their enormous gravity. Because black holes are so dense they have very strong gravity, and this strong gravity warps spacetime. This deflects the light coming from the stars behind them, making that light brighter for a short time.

Citizen scientists are advised to look for these star brightness peaks in the graphical data. A short tutorial explains what you’re looking for in a graph, then you’re dropped to help classify graphs that might indicate the presence of a black hole. The data is collected from 10 years of measurements from the SuperWASP survey, an exoplanet detection project.

The project could help astronomers identify important black holes for future study, according to Adam McMaster, one of the co-leads: “I can’t wait to see what we find with the Black Hole Hunters project. The black holes we are looking for should certainly exist, but none have yet been found. Our research should give us the first clues to the number of black holes in silent orbits around stars, ultimately helping us understand how these systems form,” he said in a statement.

“Finding them is a huge task and it’s not something we could do alone, so it’s great that anyone with internet access can get involved, regardless of their knowledge of astronomy.”

You can participate in the hunt by going to the Black Hole Hunters project page.

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