Capturing the first image of a black hole
In a landmark moment for astrophysics, scientists last week unveiled the first-ever image of one of the universe’s most enigmatic phenomena: a black hole. Anticipated more than a century ago by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, a black hole is a cosmic abyss so dense with matter that not even light can escape its gravitational grip. The picture from Messier 87, a galaxy some 55 million light-years away, shows a bright ring of particles that are heated to billions of degrees as they circle the gravitational drain at close to the speed of light. At the center of that glowing doughnut is a supermassive black hole that measures some 25 billion miles across—about 10 times greater than the distance between the sun and Neptune—and has the mass of 6.5 billion suns. Because the black hole is so distant, capturing its image was an immense technical challenge, one that required an Earth-size telescope, reports The Washington Post. And so in the mid-2000s scientists began work on the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)—named after the point on a black hole’s boundary beyond which everything gets sucked in, never to re-emerge. The EHT is a network of eight ultrapowerful radio telescopes around the world, and over 10 days in 2017, they were simultaneously focused on Messier 87. Researchers then compared the resulting images to millions of simulations of what the black hole might look like—and found a match. “We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” says project leader Shep Doeleman, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Doeleman and his team hope this breakthrough will allow scientists to find out how black holes originate and what happens at their core—questions beyond our current understanding of physics.