Published: Sun, April 14, 2019
Research | By Sheri Schwartz

Science fact: Astronomers reveal first image of a black hole

Science fact: Astronomers reveal first image of a black hole

The team of scientists took nearly 12 years to capture the image of a black hole.

The very first image of a black hole has been obtained by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes on four different continents designed for this goal.

"As with any major physics experiment, one needs to understand the effects that the instrument itself may have on the data". The name is misleading, as their equipment isn't a telescope in the way we ordinarily think of it.

"We have taken the first picture of a black hole. Here it is", said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard.

In fact, Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Black holes, theorized by Albert Einstein about a century ago, have been confirmed through indirect evidence but never before through an image. The hole is said to have a large gravitational pull that even light can not escape.

Of all the forces in the Universe that we can not see - including dark energy and dark matter - none has frustrated human curiosity as thoroughly as the invisible, star-devouring monsters known as black holes.

Wednesday was a historic day for many scientists and astronomers since they managed to take a picture of a black hole.

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

Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel, just like the gravitational wave discovery.

However, due to its exceptional mass and relative proximity to Earth ('only' 55 million light years away from us), the black hole at the centre of the M87 galaxy was a flawless target for the EHT.

Taken over four days when astronomers had "to have the flawless weather all across the world and literally all the stars had to align", the image helps confirm Einstein's general relativity theory, Dempsey said. Einstein even predicted the object's neatly symmetrical shape. To gain more knowledge on the properties of the black hole, astronomers study the X-ray light that is released from an accretion disk. Now we know: The larger value is correct, the Black hole in M87 is 1,000 times heavier than the milky way.

There are two types of black holes, the garden-variety black holes, which are 20 times bigger than the sun and the super-massive black holes which are at least a million times bigger. The imaging project started in 2017 and cost about $50 million. We wanted to develop many different algorithms that all have different assumptions built into them.

The data collected was equivalent to a lifetime collection of selfies from 40,000 people, said discovery team member Daniel Marrone of the University of Arizona. "To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand".

They established a network of eight telescopes across the world, which then scanned the black hole over a period of 10 days. These are landscapes we could never see for ourselves, but, in seeing their images, they become real to us. But the black hole is quite far from our planet. "No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards insane to get something that wasn't this ring", Bouman said. It is located 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times larger than our solar system's sun. One light year is equal to 9.5 trillion kilometres.

Katie Bouman is a postdoctoral fellow with the Event Horizon Telescope. After 100 years of the origin of the concept of a black hole, the scientists are finally successful in capturing the image of the same. "We had a lot of good reasons to believe Einstein, he hadn't failed us before, but this is the first time we were able to push into that untested region".

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