Video: Black-hole warp

updated 12/21/2006 7:10:51 PM ET 2006-12-22T00:10:51

A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow the Big Island's W.M. Keck Observatory to take a closer look at the areas surrounding the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

The three-year grant will be used to make improvements to the observatory's interferometer system, which combines information gathered from the sky by the observatory's twin telescopes atop Mauna Kea.

The upgrades will allow researchers to observe objects that are 100 fainter than what they can currently see at the observatory and with 10 times more accuracy than by using one of the telescopes alone.

The improvements will make the observatory uniquely capable of "measuring the position, velocity and acceleration of stars near the massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy, allowing us to look for the distortions in space predicted by general relativity," said Peter Wizinowich, the observatory's senior scientist.

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity describes how gravity works and predicts the existence of black holes, wormholes and other phenomena.

Slideshow: Planetary pleasures Researchers hope the improved system will enable them to test theories, including general relativity, that predict the behavior of stars near black holes. Their observations may also help them figure out whether black holes spin, which could bring more focus to theories about their formation.

Along with the black hole projects, scientists at the observatory are also looking to better measure the mass planets outside our solar system by observing the gravitational tug they have on the stars around them.

So far astronomers have found 200 planets outside our solar system. Two-thirds of those planets have been confirmed at Keck.

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