How Vacuum Technology Helped Astronomical Research Discover Black Holes and Gravitational Waves

By  //  August 24, 2022

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Vacuum technology has played a vital role in astronomical research and in sensational discoveries that will pave our future. Life-changing physics experiments have been enabled by the intangible force of ultra-high vacuum.

Let’s explore how vacuum technology and astronomical studies worked together to understand our universe.

Intro: What is a Black Hole?

It was the early 1970s, when two physicists at the University of Cambridge in England, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, utilized Einstein’s general theory of relativity to demonstrate that black holes are a natural consequence of classical physics laws.

Their research has shown that not only are black holes real, but they also play a crucial role in the cosmos.

While black holes cannot be seen directly, their existence can be deduced through their effects on their surroundings. They are extremely dense, with mass many times that of the sun. As they are so dense, their gravitational pull is so powerful that nothing – not even light – can escape.

Actual evidence of black holes

Black holes are tremendously curious objects that are among the most absurd in the universe. Their existence calls into question our understanding of physics, and their unusual behaviors continue to intrigue astronomers and scientists alike.

In many different methods, astronomers have discovered proof of the existence of black holes. One of the most direct methods is to observe the impact of their enormous gravitational pull on other things.

When a black hole and a star are close to one other, for example, the black hole can drag the star towards it, causing the star to accelerate and shift direction.

Scientists have discovered additional proof of their existence by studying the X-ray emissions from gas and dust falling into black holes. When a black hole and a star are orbiting close, the black hole pulls gas away from the star. This gas will subsequently be accelerated as it falls toward the black hole, producing a shiny X-ray source that telescopes may detect.

In the decades following Hawking and Penrose’s study, astronomers have discovered convincing evidence that black holes exist at the centre of practically every massive galaxy, including our own Milky Way.

These gigantic black holes, which may hold the mass of millions or perhaps billions of stars, are theorized to originate when a giant star dies.

Astronomers have been using powerful telescopes and other instruments to study black holes in more detail in recent years, and these studies have uncovered some of the most bizarre and extreme objects in the universe.

Vacuum tech and astronomic research for the research

Vacuum technology is crucial in the investigation of black holes. For example, astronomers need to build a vacuum chamber in which they can shoot X-rays to imitate the environment near a black hole.

This allows them to investigate how the X-rays interact with the gas as it flows towards the black hole.

Vacuum technology is also used in the production of X-ray telescopes. To prevent interference from the Earth’s atmosphere, these telescopes must be able to operate in a vacuum. Such an example is the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a space-based telescope that was launched in 1999 and is still operational today.

The first picture of a black hole

However, it wasn’t until 2019 that scientists were able to capture the first real photograph of a black hole, the first direct evidence of a supermassive black hole in the centre of a faraway galaxy.

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) made headlines when it captured the first-ever image of a black hole’s event horizon, specifically the black hole at the centre of the active elliptical galaxy Messier 87.

This black hole, which is around 17 times the mass of our sun, is surrounded by a disk of superheated gas. The gas emits a bright light as it falls into the black hole, allowing astronomers to study it in unparalleled detail.

And scientists captured it thanks to a brilliant method involving a new technology: vacuum technology.

Gravitational waves – first experimental evidence

The first experimental evidence of gravitational waves happened in April 2020, when astrophysicists at the University of Chicago witnessed an “extraordinary occurrence”. The merger of two black holes with significantly different masses.

The recorded event had a massive effect on astrophysics and gravitational physics: in brief, it gave astronomers a better grasp of how black holes spin, but it also allowed them to collect experimental evidence of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein had already predicted gravitational waves – but never expected to witness them – in his general theory of relativity. 

How did they do this? 

The foundational research behind this study required the use of complicated equipment operating under the most strict vacuum conditions.

The highest level of vacuum on Earth, defined as Ultra-High Vacuum (UHV), is achieved by using a device known as a “Ion Pump ”. Varian Vacuum (now Agilent Vacuum) 1957 invention of the sputter ion pump and the ConFlat Flange (CFF), brought us in the era of UHV. All major innovations in ion pump technology have evolved from there.

To this day, vacuum solutions power academic and government labs, as well as huge scientific projects all around the world. Check out the most advanced Agilent ion pumps here.

LIGO, in particular, was the unique device that allowed Einstein to be proven both correct and wrong over a century after his gravitational waves theory.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory was designed with the specific purpose to detect those minute vibrations in space-time created by cataclysmic cosmic sources. With its success, it set the stage for the emerging, unanticipated discipline of gravitational-wave astrophysics.

This extremely sensitive setup is made up of two interferometers located in the United States, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. For LIGO to function correctly, exact parameters must be maintained at all times.

First and foremost, a constant high vacuum allows for excellent, dependable, and vibration-free running. There are other crucial requirements for these detectors, such as uptime, dependability, and issue-free operation.

These fundamental vacuum pumps were created and manufactured by Agilent. Agilent developed unique ion pumps that met all of these stringent specifications, assuring the experiment’s success. On Agilent’s website, you can see the most recent vacuum technology. 

The study of black holes is fascinating and beneficial.

Astronomers are learning more about the universe and its past thanks to the study of black holes.

Scientists originally used vacuum technology to create radio telescopes with significantly wider apertures or mirrors. The greater the aperture, the more light that can be collected by the telescope and the better the image. Scientists were eventually able to develop a radio telescope with an aperture large enough to catch the first image of a black hole using vacuum technology.

Since then, vacuum technology has been important in the investigation of black holes. It has enabled scientists to build larger radio telescopes and perform more exact measurements of black holes using sensors and specialized equipment like LIGO interferometers.

As a result, vacuum technology has proved critical to the discovery and study of black holes. Without it, we would not have the images and data that we have today.

We can learn much more about the nature of gravity, the birth of galaxies, and the evolution of the universe by knowing more about these interesting objects.