For many years, scientists have only had theoretical models to help them imagine what a black hole looked like. No one had ever taken a photo of this phenomenon in space before, until now. The images were captured thanks to a global network of telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope.
Researchers found the apparent black hole in galaxy M87, according to Sheperd Doeleman, EHT Director and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole,” Doeleman told Science News.
France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation pointed out that no one has actually ever seen a black hole, not even from afar with sophisticated scientific instruments.
“We’ve been studying black holes so long, sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us have actually seen one,” she explained.
According to a press release issued by the research team.
Their gravity is so extreme that nothing, not even light, can escape across the boundary at a black hole’s edge, known as the event horizon. But some black holes, especially supermassive ones dwelling in galaxies’ centers, stand out by voraciously accreting bright disks of gas and other material. The EHT image reveals the shadow of M87’s black hole on its accretion disk. Appearing as a fuzzy, asymmetrical ring, it unveils for the first time a dark abyss of one of the universe’s most mysterious objects.
Doeleman explained that that is a milestone in the search of the universe.
“It’s been such a buildup. It was just astonishment and wonder… to know that you’ve uncovered a part of the universe that was off limits to us,” Doeleman said.
Yale University astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan says that this is a discovery that truly lives up to the hype.
”The much-anticipated big reveal of the image “lives up to the hype, that’s for sure. It really brings home how fortunate we are as a species at this particular time, with the capacity of the human mind to comprehend the universe, to have built all the science and technology to make it happen,” Natarajan said.
This discovery also confirms many of the implications made in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
As physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida in Gainesville explains, Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts how space-time is warped by the extreme mass of the black hole.
“[The photo is] one more strong piece of evidence supporting the existence of black holes. And that, of course, helps verify general relativity. Being able to actually see this shadow and to detect it is a tremendous first step,” Will said.
“Black hole environments are a likely place where general relativity would break down,” Feryal Özel, a member of the EHT team said.
However, many other experts believe that this does not necessarily prove the theory of relativity, and that the science is not settled on this issue.
The black hole is 55 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo, and it’s about 1,000 times as large as the Milky Way’s giant, which weighs the equivalent of roughly 4 million suns.
Heino Falcke, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, and current chair of the EHT Science Council described the black hole in the press release, saying that, “If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow. This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87’s black hole.”
Paul T.P. Ho, EHT Board member and Director of the East Asian Observatory says that the team is very confident about their summation of the video.
“Once we were sure we had imaged the shadow, we could compare our observations to extensive computer models that include the physics of warped space, superheated matter and strong magnetic fields. Many of the features of the observed image match our theoretical understanding surprisingly well. This makes us confident about the interpretation of our observations, including our estimation of the black hole’s mass,” Ho said.