On April 10, 2019, in coordinated press conferences around the world, researchers unveiled the first direct visual evidence – a photo, albeit in the “light” of radio waves – of a supermassive black hole. The image (above) is the result of a multi-year, international collaboration. The astronomers said it presents “paradigm-shifting” observations of the gargantuan black hole in the center of the galaxy M87, 55 million light-years from Earth. The image doesn’t show the black hole itself; black holes are black because no light can escape them, and thus the holes themselves are invisible. Instead, the image shows what astronomers are calling the black hole’s “shadow,” a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around the hole. This black hole, by the way, at M87’s heart, is thought to be some 6.5 billion times more massive than our sun.
To obtain the image, astronomers used the Event Horizon Telescope (@ehtelescope on Twitter) – a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes – designed specifically to capture the first-ever black hole photo.
This breakthrough was announced April 10 in a series of six papers published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. To say it is a big deal for astronomers is an understatement. Although black holes have been studied for decades, they’ve been largely theoretical objects. All the images you’ve ever seen of them have been computer simulations or artist’s conceptions, until now.
What a science journalist's Tweetdeck looks like right now pic.twitter.com/6bJxaOc22r
— Michael Moyer (@mmoyr) April 10, 2019
Event Horizon Telescope project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsionian Center for Astrophysics said in a statement:
We have taken the first picture of a black hole. This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.
If you’ve got some time, you can also check out this morning’s announcement via this replay of the press conference:
And here’s more from a statement from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT):
Black holes are extraordinary cosmic objects with enormous masses but extremely compact sizes. The presence of these objects affects their environment in extreme ways, warping spacetime and super-heating any surrounding material.
Multiple calibration and imaging methods revealed a ring-like structure with a dark central region – the black hole’s shadow – that persisted over multiple independent EHT observations.
Supermassive black holes are relatively tiny astronomical objects – which has made them impossible to directly observe until now. As a black hole’s size is proportional to its mass, the more massive a black hole, the larger the shadow. Thanks to its enormous mass and relative proximity, M87’s black hole was predicted to be one of the largest viewable from Earth – making it a perfect target for the EHT.
The shadow of a black hole is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary – the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name – is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion kilometers [25 billion miles] across.
The Event Horizon Telescope links telescopes around the globe to form an Earth-sized virtual telescope. Its Earth-sized scale gives it sensitivity and resolution that’s truly unprecedented: hence, the first-ever black hole image. The EHT is the result of years of international collaboration. It offers scientists a new way to study the most extreme objects in the universe predicted by Einstein’s general relativity during the centennial year of the historic experiment that first confirmed the theory.
We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago. Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world’s best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes and the event horizon.
And, as with all new advances in science, this new step forward is sure to lead to more questions! Astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts are already asking them …
Question for those in the know: Are we seeing the black hole's 'north pole,' for lack of a better term? If I were to fly in a spacecraft to the edge of that gas ring, would it look more like the black hole in interstellar? Or would it look the same, because of relativity? pic.twitter.com/gm5xiRNEHt
— Jason Davis (@jasonrdavis) April 10, 2019
Bottom line: First-ever black hole image – what astronomers have called the “shadow” of the event horizon – was released April 10, 2019.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.