Scientists with the National Science Foundation revealed the first ever image captured of a black hole located more than 55 million light-years away Wednesday morning in an unprecedented revolution in humanity's understanding of the massive stellar phenomenon.
The black hole was imaged using a network of ground-based telescopes around the world known as the Event Horizon Telescope, researchers said. The photo shows an uneven ring of orange light that surrounds a dark circle. The orange halos are hot gas emissions located near the black hole's event horizon - the point where nothing, not even light, can escape the hole's massive gravity well.
"We have seen what we thought was unseeable," Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration said at Wednesday morning's press conference. "We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole."
The black hole is located in the center of a galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55-million light-years away from Earth in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. The black hole is more than seven BILLION times more massive than our own sun.
Taking a photo like that wasn't easy. More than 200 scientists worked together to network eight telescopes across the planet in an attempt to create the "Earth-sized" telescope necessary to peer into the black hole. The resulting five petabytes worth of data (or "the equivalent of billions of cat videos” as the Event Horizon Telescope team added helpfully) took the team more than two years to analyze.
In all, eight radio observatories on four continents ultimately took part in the project in April 2017. The telescopes, synchronized by atomic clocks, observed their target for ten days. The EHT is so powerful, a person standing in New York City could use it to read the writing on a quarter in Los Angeles.
Black holes are made up of enormous amounts of matter all crammed together in a small space, warping gravity in its area. A black hole's gravity well is so strong that it draws in everything around it, including light. Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity describes gravity as the result of matter and energy warping space, much like a stretched out sheet will sag under the weight of a bowling ball in the middle. When too much matter and energy is concentrated in one place, space-time can collapse, resulting in a black hole like the one imaged by the EHT team.
Scientists believe black holes are common in the universe with many super-massive black holes located at the heart of every galaxy.
Photo: National Science Foundation