Astronomers captured and revealed the first-ever photo of a black hole. In viewing this image, we have gazed upon one of the universe’s most mysterious bodies.
“We are delighted to report today that we have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of the Event Telescope Collaboration. “We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole.”
Like many other scientific breakthroughs, this event marks a major milestone for astronomers and for the cosmos at large.
What Is a Black Hole?
NASA defines a black hole as “an extremely dense object from which no light can escape.” Furthermore, black holes are ravenous cosmic beasts—they swallow whatever falls into their “event horizon” due to an ultra-strong gravitational pull.
The black hole itself cannot be seen. However, the hot ring of matter swirling around it is visible and very bright. The black hole casts a shadow against this bright backdrop.
Now, scientists have presented visual proof that a black hole exists. With help from NASA, they accomplished the remarkable feat more quickly than expected.
“This is an amazing accomplishment by the EHT [Event Horizon Telescope] team,” said Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA Headquarters in Washington in a statement. “Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time.”
Achieving a Decade-Long Goal
NSF Director France Cordova told the captive D.C. audience that capturing and presenting this stunning image took a “Herculean effort.”
The massive endeavor pooled a dedicated team of scientists, vital funding sources, and cutting-edge technology. The global group also shared a singular, unwavering vision to achieve what many may have thought was impossible.
In all, it took more than 200 researchers over a decade to complete their mission.
Furthermore, no single telescope on Earth is able to capture a definitive image of an event horizon. Therefore, researchers linked telescopes around the world to create “a virtual array of telescopes the size of the Earth itself.”
This group of eight global telescopes are collectively called the “Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).”
Staring Into the Abyss
Many people probably count a black hole as an object conjured by sci-fi movie CGI, seen somewhere in the fictional “Star Wars” cosmos.
However, the EHT team kept pushing to find hard, visual evidence of the most mysterious objects in the universe, to witness that place of no return—that region in space from which nothing, not even light itself, can escape.
In their quest to capture an image of a black hole, scientists combined eight radio telescopes using a process called Very-Long-Baseline-Interferometry, the European Southern Observatory reported.
For further perspective, the EHT renders the highest possible angle resolution from the Earth’s surface. Their collective power enables scientists “to read the face of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.,” Doeleman explained.
In April 2017, all the dishes in the Event Horizon Telescope cluster “swiveled, turned, and stared at a galaxy 55 million light years away,” said Doeleman.
They looked into the super massive black hole, which weighs 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun. The gigantic space structure is located at the center of the Messier 87 (or M87) galaxy.
Today, scientists visually confirmed black holes exist. The abyss is real. Now, the EHT—and all of us—have stared straight into the intergalactic face of it.
According to Albert Einstein, black holes are bottomless gravitational pits in which matter, space, and time implode and cease to exist.
Doeleman proudly displayed the black hole image (to wild applause). At that moment, he validated Einstein’s eerie theory, proving that these vast holes in space exist.
Rendering the Iconic Image
The image is a distorted, amber ring of light surrounding a dark circle. The burning ring consists of materials swirling around the edge of the black hole at light speed. Once anything falls through the event horizon, it enters the abyss eternally.
To render the image shown today, the Event Horizon team reportedly reduced and collated the results from their 2017 observations over two years.
The data “were too voluminous to transmit over the internet, and so had to be placed on hard disks and flown back to M.I.T.’s Haystack Observatory, in Westford, Massachusetts and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany.”
South Pole data didn’t arrive until December 2017. With all data collected, the team split into four groups to assemble images in the last data dump last year.
Looking Into the Future
In an age when artificial intelligence is playing an even bigger role in our lives and space exploration is aiming to send its first manned commercial flight into orbit, astronomy, like all science and technology, is constantly evolving.
Today’s visual evidence of a black hole has opened doors for exciting future discovery.
“This opens a new window for study,” Doeleman said. “We are now entering the era of precision, horizon-scale observations of black holes. We’ve never had that before, so we’re now able to ask a bunch of questions we couldn’t even conceive of before. We can start teasing apart physical processes at the black hole boundary, so [the significance] is in what we saw, but also in the promise this holds for the future.”