Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image made of a black hole, depicting a fiery orange and black ring of gravity-twisted light.
With data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, astronomers captured a picture of the hot, shadowy edges of a supermassive black hole. These light-sucking monsters of the universe were theorized by Albert Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by decades of observations. It is along those edges that light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard University.
Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said it reminded her of the powerful flaming Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Unlike smaller black holes that come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin. Situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, they are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull.
Scientists not connected with the project suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize.
Taken over four days when astronomers had “to have the perfect 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 a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found, she said.
“It’s circular, but on one side the light is brighter,” Dempsey said. That’s because that light is approaching Earth.
The measurements are taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image. They chose “exquisite gold because this light is so hot,” Dempsey said. “Making it these warm gold and oranges makes sense.”
“It’s just seriously cool,” said John Kormendy, a University of Texas astronomer who wasn’t part of the discovery team. “To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand. The mystique of black holes in the community is very substantial. That mystique is going to be made more real.”
The first image is of a black hole in a galaxy called M87 that is about 54 million light-years from Earth. One light-year is 5.9 trillion miles. This black hole is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun.
The telescope data was gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope two years ago, but it took so long to complete the image because it was a massive undertaking, involving about 200 scientists, supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data delivered worldwide by plane.
The team looked at two supermassive black holes, the M87 and the one at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The one in our galaxy is closer but much smaller, so they both look the same size in the sky. But the more distant one was easier to take pictures of because it rotates more slowly.
“We’ve been hunting this for a long time,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been getting closer and closer with better technology.”