Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, depicting its hot, shadowy edges where light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.
Assembling data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, astronomers created the picture showing the violent neighborhood around a supermassive black hole, the light-sucking monsters of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations for decades.
It looked like a flaming orange, yellow and black ring.
"We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole. Here it is," said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard.
Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said that when she first saw the image, taken two years ago, 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. This one's "event horizon" — the point of no return around it, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the abyss — is as big as our entire solar system.
Three years ago, scientists using a massive and intricate observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Albert Einstein predicted. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world in several news conferences, adds light to that sound.
Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize, just like the gravitational wave discovery.
While much around a black hole falls into a death spiral and is never to be seen again, the new image captures "lucky gas and dust" circling at just far enough to be safe and seen millions of years later on Earth, Dempsey said.
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."
What the image shows is gas heated to millions of degrees by the friction of ever-stronger gravity, scientists said. And that gravity creates a funhouse effect where you see light from both behind the black hole and behind you as the light curves and circles around the black hole itself, said astronomer Avi Loeb, director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard. (The lead scientists in the discovery are from Harvard, but Loeb was not involved.)
The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $26 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, who was not part of the discovery team but edits the journal where the research was published, pronounced the image "an amazing technical achievement" that "gives us a glimpse of gravity in its most extreme manifestation."
He added: "Pictures from computer simulations can be very pretty, but there's literally nothing like a picture of the real universe, however fuzzy and monochromatic."
"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."
There is a myth that says a black hole would rip you apart, but Loeb and Kormendy said the one pictured is so big, someone could fall into it and not be ripped apart. But the person would never be seen from again.
Black holes are "like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate," Loeb said.
The first image is of a black hole in a galaxy called M87 that is about 53 million light years from Earth. One light year is 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers. 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, Dempsey said.
"We've been hunting this for a long time," Dempsey said. "We've been getting closer and closer with better technology."
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