Black hole image published for the first time ever

Astronomers have taken the first-ever image of a black hole, which is located in a distant galaxy. The black hole is 500 million trillion km away and was photographed by a network of eight telescopes across the world.

It measures 40 billion km across – three million times the size of the Earth – and has been described by scientists as “a monster”.

“We’ve been studying black holes so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us has actually seen one,” said France Cordova, director of the US National Science Foundation, at one of seven simultaneous press conferences where the scientists announced their findings to the world.

The first image shows a bright fringe of gas, which is being squeezed and heated as it falls towards the event horizon of a supermassive black hole at the center of M87, a galaxy near our own Milky Way. This black hole resides about 54 million light years from Earth.

WHAT IS A BLACK HOLE?
  • A black hole is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape its gravity
  • Despite the name, they are not empty but instead consist of a huge amount of matter packed densely into a small area
  • There is a region of space beyond the black hole called the event horizon. This is a “point of no return”, beyond which it is impossible to escape the gravitational effects of the black hole

The image offered a final, ringing affirmation of an idea so disturbing that even Einstein, from whose equations black holes emerged, was loath to accept it. If too much matter is crammed into one place, the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap, a black hole. Here, according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream.

Astronomers have suspected that the M87 galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart from false color images such as this one. The dark center is not a black hole but indicates that stars are densely packed and fast moving

On Wednesday morning that dark vision became a visceral reality. When the image was put up on the screen in Washington, cheers and gasps, followed by applause, broke out.

But having the first image will enable researchers to learn more about these mysterious objects. They will be keen to look out for ways in which the black hole departs from what’s expected in physics. No-one really knows how the bright ring around the hole is created. Even more intriguing is the question of what happens when an object falls into a black hole.

He pioneered the instrument making it all possible: the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is actually a network of radio telescopes spanning the globe.

Their combined observing power has been trained on two very large black holes, to try and obtain some historic snapshots.

On Wednesday the EHT team called a press conference. Seven press conferences, to be exact, on four continents and in five languages, all starting at 11:00pm AEST.

Nobody outside the project knew exactly what they would be announcing, but they had declared it was “a groundbreaking result”.

The finding was also announced today in a series of six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 

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