Scientists unveil first image of black hole in all its dark glory

A virtual telescope the size of planet Earth has captured the first direct image of a black hole a century after Einstein’s equations predicted the existence of black holes. Specifically, the image captured by the Event Horizon Telescope was the mysterious region defined by the hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which nothing — not even light — can escape.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, a radio astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of the Event Horizon Telescope project. “We have seen, and taken a picture of, a black hole. This is a remarkable achievement.”The target was an enormous black hole, 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun, in the core of M-87, a giant elliptical galaxy about 55 million light years away in the constellation Virgo. A familiar target for amateur astronomers, M-87 is one of the brightest radio sources in the sky, featuring a huge jet of material extending away from the core, powered by the voracious black hole.  The black hole’s six-and-a-half billion solar masses are crammed into a region about the size of a solar system.The image captured by the Event Horizon Telescope shows a black central core — the event horizon — surrounded by a lopsided ring of light emitted by particles racing around the black hole at nearly the speed of light. It closely resembles what astronomers expected based on simulations running the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
“We now have visual evidence for a black hole,” Doeleman said. “We now know that a black hole that weighs 6.5 billion times what our sun does exists in the center of M-87. This is the strongest evidence we have to date for the existence of black holes. It is also consistent … with Einstein’s predictions.”Daniel Marrone, an astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory said: “Today, general relativity has passed another crucial test. … The object at the heart of M-87 is a black hole like those described by general relativity.”Picturing a supermassive black holeThe long-awaited announcement was made simultaneously at multiple news conferences around the world by scientists participating in the Event Horizon Telescope project. The scale of the event was reminiscent of the announcements surrounding the discovery of the Higgs boson and the first detection of gravitational waves. The globe-spanning network of radio dishes, atomic clocks and computers making up the Event Horizon Telescope also is expected to image Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.Unlike the beast powering M-87, Sgr A* is a relatively modest 4.3-million-solar-mass black hole filling a volume smaller than Earth’s solar system. It is located 26,000 light years away in the core of the Milky Way, generating enormous gravitational effects that can be seen in the motions of nearby stars.Those motions at the core of the galaxy have been studied for years, providing the mass of the hole along with other insights, but no one has actually viewed the black hole itself.”Sgr A* is also a very interesting target,” Doeleman said. “We should be able to resolve it. M-87 is the first source we imaged. … We’re very excited to work on Sgr A*. We’re not promising anything, but we hope to get that soon.”