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Supermassive Black Hole Hunting

Supermassive Black Hole Hunting

By Allison Emm

Van Helsing, don’t quit your day job. Vampires and werewolves, stand aside. Ahab, hold your harpoon. Daleks, Cybermen, and Angels, get rolling, stomping, and weeping, because it’s time to call the Doctor.

There’s a bigger, badder beastie in town.

Some super geeks in Pasadena, CA are in hot pursuit of some of the most powerful monsters in the universe. A class of supermassive black holes known as “blazars” are the prize for these astronomers, and they’re sucking much more than a few pints of blood. According to NASA's website, blazars are some of the most energetic objects in the cosmos. As they “feed” on the matter around them, they release energy spewing in jets almost as fast as light itself. One of the head honcho researchers, Francesco Massaro, tells us that blazars are pretty rare, because apparently it’s not all that common for a supermassive black hole's jet to point towards Earth. Sounds like the job of finding these light-swallowing voids is no easy task. So, they decided to use NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), normally used to pick up the weak heat signatures of not-so-beastly astral energies. So far, the mission has found over 200 of these suckers (no pun intended), and will likely find thousands more.

Not all of us belong in the astro-genius crowd. There are those who prefer novels, philosophy, psychology, and art, and will happily write a 25 page paper on all of the above. Some lucky blokes can carry that kind of enthusiasm into the realm of straight math and science too, but most of us aren’t equally gifted on both sides of the brain. Even so, any artsy fart, dilettante, or dabbler can still appreciate what these guys are doing.

At some point, every little kid had to answer the question, “What do you what to be when you grow up?” It’s a safe bet that many of us replied with one or all of the following: Mad scientist, astronomer, or astronaut. In those tender years, it doesn’t matter much what any of those occupations actually entails. It’s the dream that counts. When you’re five, a mad scientist really does build a time machine out of a DeLorean. An astronomer spends the afternoon dropping things from the Tower of Pisa, and an astronaut plays golf on the moon. If your path to an intergalactic career stopped there, you're not alone.

Now, these supermassive black hole hunters are bringing back those childhood fancies. Once again we turn heavenward, eyes wide, while a Muse song plays loudly in the background.

Quite literally reaching for the stars, NASA’S WIDE Mission sets out to locate, study, and understand some of the most intriguing objects in the whole wide universe. There is something a bit romantic in their search for these blazars, unlocking the mysteries of the void, scanning the skies for signs of gamma ray hotspots. We’ll never know exactly what they do or how they do it, but on behalf of all the mathematically impaired nerds out there, we’d like to thank these astronomers for being everything the five-year-old versions of us could ever dream of.

What's your favorite space oddity?

Tags: science, outer space, life, black holes

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About the Author
Allison Emm

Allison Emm is a writer, illustrator, and handmade soap enthusiast hailing from Boulder, CO. She is fond of bookish and ruggedly handsome mountain men, blue spruce trees, birds of prey, starships, and yarn. See more of her high jinks at www.AllisonEmm.com, and follow her on Twitter @Allison_Emm.

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