First Photo of a Black Hole
To find the image, scientists created a virtual telescope the size of the world
Photo EHT Collaboration
You might say we’ve reached the point of no return. Now there is once-and-for-all, photographic evidence of a black hole. Today, teams of scientists from across the world presented the first ever photo of a black hole, the mysterious places in the universe where gravity is so strong that time and space warp inward like a sinkhole.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” Sheperd Doeleman, of Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said today during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Doeleman directs the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, which captured the epic imagery. The network is named for the “event horizon,” the point-of-no-return edge of a black hole where not even light can escape.
While mathematically, black holes have long been nearly assured to exist, for human beings, there’s nothing quite like seeing a photo to give a face to what the math tells you. And what the photo shows, a black circle surrounded by streams of light, also, once again, confirms Einstein’s century-old theory of general relativity, which predicted that the silhouette or “shadow” of a black hole would be circular. It’s thought that where you have black holes- indeed at the very place where we are viewing this image- matter, space, and time vanish into nothing. What could exist on the other side of a black hole, or if anything could exist on the other side of a black hole is unknown.
“Black holes must be the most exotic disrupters of cosmic order,” Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam, and a member of the Event Horizon team told The New York Times.
Finding the black hole was no easy task. The kind of telescope power needed to find a black hole is said to be akin to finding an orange on the moon or reading a newspaper in Los Angeles while sitting in New York. But scientists essentially turned the Earth into a giant telescope platform, combining the power of a network of telescopes from five different continents to create a massive virtual telescope that all were affixed on the same region in space.
In the constellation Virgo lies a super-massive galaxy, Messier 87 (or M87). Two years ago, for ten days in April, the scientists aimed their telescopes at the center of that galaxy- as super-massive black holes are thought to reside in the centers of galaxies.
“This is a picture you would have seen if you had eyes as big as the Earth and were observing in radio,” Dimitrios Psaltis, an Event Horizon Telescope project scientist at the University of Arizona, recently told The Verge.
You may be wondering why it took so long to find the black hole in the images that EHT, a team of some 200 scientists, had taken with the world-sized telescope back in 2017.
Well, the answer is that they’d gathered a tremendous amount of data to be combed through. In fact, the data was so large, that it was too much for the internet to handle and had to be physically transferred via hard drives.
In the end, that data was the “equivalent to 5,000 years of mp3 files” according to Dan Marrone, an astronomer and co-investigator of Event Horizon Telescope.
And by the way, just because the black hole was difficult to find, doesn’t mean that it’s tiny. Rather, that M87 is just that big. The black hole, which is 55 million light years away, harbors a mass about 6.5 billion times the mass of Earth’s sun – it’s about the size of our entire solar system – and it’s believed to be unleashing a violent jet of energy 5,000 light years into space. That energy is thought to be the energy that doesn’t quite make it into the black, and sprays out instead.
And the fact of the image really being a black hole and not something else was quadruple-verified, as four different teams of scientists – not allowed contact with one another – independently researched the same data and came to the same results.
The Event Horizon Telescope project also monitored another source of radio noise called Sagittarius A (pronounced Sagittarius A-star) at the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy. Somewhere there lies another black hole that they hope to lay eyes on, some 26,000 light years from Earth.
Peter Galison, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard, said in an EHT talk last month at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas said that this, the first of what is hoped will be more images of black holes, is opening up a whole new field of study.
Galison, who co-founded Harvard’s interdisciplinary Black Hole Initiative (BHI), compared the image’s potential impact to drawings made by English scientist Robert Hooke in the 1600s. These illustrations first showed people what insects and plants look like through a microscope.
“There’s really a new field to explore,” Galison said.