Space

First direct images of supermassive black hole released

The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87
The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87
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The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87
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The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy M87
Image of M87 captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope
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Image of M87 captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope
Artist's impression of the environment surrounding the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of M87
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Artist's impression of the environment surrounding the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of M87
Graphic showing the anatomy of a black hole
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Graphic showing the anatomy of a black hole

Astronomers have released what could be the historic first images of a supermassive black hole's event horizon. The enormous black hole is located within the large galaxy M87, and was imaged by a network of powerful observatories that formed a single planet-sized virtual telescope.

Black holes are believed to be regions of space where matter is packed so densely that nothing can escape their gravitational influence. Not even light. They are cosmic leviathans, capable of shredding and devouring entire solar systems, and while a veritable library of scientific papers has been penned on their nature, they remain one of the most enigmatic phenomena populating the universe.

There is evidence to suggest that supermassive black holes lurk at the center of most large galaxies. These cosmic heavyweights dwarf the more common breed of black holes created in the death throes of enormous stars, and are thought to play an important role in galactic evolution.

At the heart of the Milky Way, some 26,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the galactic center lies our own supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*(Sgr A*). This monster has a mass the equivalent of 4 million Suns crammed into an area 30 times the size of our parent star, and whether you realize it or not you have been travelling around it your entire life.

Humanity's eagerness to understand the phenomena is hampered by the fact that we cannot directly observe a singularity in the same way we might image a planet, as it emits no light, and allows none to escape. One of the ways that scientists can attempt to understand a black hole is by observing the space environment surrounding a singularity, including its event horizon, which is essentially the line of demarcation beyond which nothing can escape its gravity.

Graphic showing the anatomy of a black hole
Graphic showing the anatomy of a black hole

Today, an international team of over 200 astronomers has released the first direct images ever captured of what is believed to be a black hole.

The data used to create the images was captured back in April 2017 using a network of eight connected radio telescopes positioned around the globe known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Working together, the array forms a single virtual observatory the size of the Earth, with an impressive angular resolution of 20 arc microseconds, which is roughly 3 million times sharper than that of a healthy human eye.

To put it differently, if an equivalent resolution were applied to the human eye, a person would be capable of reading a text message on a phone in New York while standing on a street in Paris.

Back in 2017, the EHT targeted the supermassive black hole sitting at the heart of the galaxy M87, which is located in the Virgo galaxy cluster some 55 million light-years from Earth.

The results of these observations are only now being released owing to the fact that the vast quantities of information captured during the campaign couldn't possibly be transferred over the internet. Instead, the data had to be transported on hard drive to two central processing facilities in the USA and Germany, where they were carefully calibrated, synchronized and combined with the help of a supercomputer.

Once the data was verified, it was sent out to four independent teams who were individually tasked with creating a finished image using different algorithms. Each team had previously verified its techniques using other cosmic objects to make sure that an accurate visual representation would be created. With a sigh of relief, all four teams produced finished images displaying the same distinctive structure.

Artist's impression of the environment surrounding the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of M87
Artist's impression of the environment surrounding the supermassive black hole lurking at the heart of M87

The release shows what appears to be a lopsided ring of fire surrounding a dark, circular center. This ring is made up of superheated material falling toward the black hole's event horizon, the border of which is visible where the interior of the ring abruptly stops. What lies within is the black hole's "shadow," which is caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon.

Based on its observations, the team estimates that the monster black hole has a mass the equivalent to 6.5 billion Suns.

The images potentially prove the existence of event horizon features that had been theorized around black holes. All of the elements revealed in the image were also found to follow closely with black hole features predicted in Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The unusual lopsided appearance of the ring of fire is likely due to the clockwise rotation of either the black hole, or the material that forms the feature.

"This black hole is much bigger than the orbit of Neptune, and Neptune takes 200 years to go around the Sun," says Geoffrey Crew, a research scientist at MIT's Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts. "With the M87 black hole being so massive, an orbiting planet would go around it within a week and be traveling at close to the speed of light."

Moving forward the team hopes to finish calibrating a similar image of Sgr A*, which was also imaged by the EHT back in 2017.

The video below zooms in on the newly-imaged supermassive black hole from the perspective of Earth.

Six papers have been published in a special edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: MIT

Zooming in to the Heart of Messier 87

11 comments
McDesign
"a person would be capable of reading a text message on a phone in New York while standing on a street in Paris. " See? They admit that the earth is flat!
Roger Garrett
Calling this a "direct image" is simply wrong. It took data from dozens of different radio antennas all across the planet and had to go through enormous super-computer processing to get that image.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Something is wrong with the resolution number of 20 arc seconds. The resolution of the well corrected human eye is 300 arc seconds. The Moon is 1800 arc seconds. The resolution of an 8 in. telescope is .58 arc seconds. The resolution of an Earth diameter telescope is the inverse of 2 x 10**8 meters/.2 meters times .58 arc second or 6 x 10**-10 arc seconds.
Babaghan
First direct images of area near supermassive black hole released. I fixed the title for you. We may never be able to see a black hole because nothing leaves a black hole. The area around a black may be imaged, but never the black hole itself. Am I being too pedantic or was this just an oversight on the astronomers who brought us these images?
Cudaboy
Should be called black mass; holes get bigger the more you take away - black holes get bigger the more they eat up; also if a BH is all about density - well - a hole has none so....should be called a black mass.
IvanWashington
can this technique directly image extra-solar planets?
UncleToad
Funnily enough, I've got a lot of photos like that on my phone, but mainly caused by having my thumb in the wrong place!
Catweazle
So basically the telescopes being separated gives us a virtual lens size the size of the separation. Shouldn't it be possible to produce a really large virtual lens by using geostationary satellites?
warren52nz
I wonder why they didn't use the black hole at the centre of our Universe; it's a lot closer. I'm sure there's a reason. @ Douglas Bennett Rogers... it's not 20 arc seconds it's 20 arc MICROseconds
owlbeyou
I'm amused and impressed with the insights of the posters. We now have so-called visual proof of its existence, and fancy graphics, lots of hypotheses, but no actual image of the action of celestial bodies getting swallowed up by this gargantuan space phenomena. I'm not a physicist, but I still fail to see what a black hole (mass?) has anything to do with Einstein's theory of relativity. There's so much scientific prognostication attributed to him that I've begun to question their validity. How in the world did a man who lived til the mid 50's ever conceive of black holes? On top of that, there are many scientists who've declared him a fake or a plagiarist. Nonetheless, the whole thing is definitely fascinating, even if it might be science fiction.