A team of astronomers has released the first image of a black hole, which is located in a galaxy about 55 million light years from our own Milky Way.
The image is something similar to what experts believed a black hole to look like — a circle of dust and gas surrounding a black center. The “ring of fire,” as described by professor Heino Falcke, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, surrounds the perfectly circular hole. The “ring” is caused by superheated gas as it falls into the hole. The light from the gas is allegedly brighter than all the stars in the galaxy combined, which is why it is visible with telescopes on Earth, the BBC reported.
But these are no regular telescopes — the Event Horizon Telescope project could only achieve the power necessary to observe the black hole by combining data from a network of eight telescopes across the world from leading radio observatories. When all was said and done, the EHT created a telescope the size of the Earth, The Guardian reported.
The telescopes at the observatories were coordinated using atomic clocks, and on one night in 2017, things fell into place and scientists were able to get the shot they were looking for. The EHT reportedly generated in one night as much data as the Large Hadron Collider does in a year, according to The Guardian.
Even with such massive power, getting the image was no small feat considering that black holes cannot be seen. Astronomers were only able to capture it by illuminating the event horizon, which is also known as the point of no return. When objects, including light and gas, approach the event horizon, they are consumed by the gravitational pull of the black hole.
In a historic feat by @EHTelescope & @NSF, a black hole image has been captured for the 1st time. Several of our missions observed the same black hole using different light wavelengths and collected data to understand the black hole's environment. Details: https://t.co/WOjLdY76ve pic.twitter.com/4PhH1bfHxc— NASA (@NASA) April 10, 2019
The first-ever photographed black hole is in the Messier 87 galaxy, and it is huge. Falcke told BBC News that the black hole was much bigger than our solar system.
“It has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. And it is one of the heaviest black holes that we think exists. It is an absolute monster, the heavyweight champion of black holes in the Universe.”
Ziri Younsi, member of the EHT team based at University College London, pointed out that the blackness in the image is not the black hole itself, but something inside the hole. While the image will no doubt give scientists new insights into the world of black holes, it does not tell them what is going on inside the mysterious objects.