'Point of no return': Supermassive black hole seen in first-of-its-kind image
An image from space that even some of the world’s top astrophysicists never expected to see is now available for every human to examine.
The first real image of a supermassive black hole was released Wednesday at six simultaneous press conferences featuring scientists with the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, an international group of researchers dedicated to finding a way to observe black holes.
“It feels like really looking at the gates of hell, at the end of space of time – the event horizon, the point of no return,” Carlos Moedas, the European Union’s commissioner of research, science and innovation, said at a press conference in Belgium.
Stitched together based on data compiled from eight telescopes located around the world, the picture shows a supermassive black hole, which scientists say has a mass about six billion times that of our sun, in a section of the M87 galaxy approximately 53 million light years away from Earth.
Black holes are extremely dense celestial bodies containing such strong gravitational fields that even light cannot escape their pull.
The image shows a ring of fiery light surrounding a black circle. The light in the photograph is essentially light bending around itself at the edge of the hole.
“You cannot see a black hole, but you can actually see its shadow,” Moedas said.
The light in the photograph was added in by scientists because the picture was taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see. Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, told a press conference in Washington that gold and orange colours were selected “because this light is so hot.”
Supermassive black holes such as the one in the photograph are considered a scientific mystery. Unlike smaller black holes, which come from dying stars, supermassive black holes’ origins have never been determined.
Scientists said the event horizon of this black hole – the point beyond which everything that enters is consumed by it – is as large as our solar system. Another supermassive black hole sits at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, although it is significantly smaller than the one in M87.
Researchers from 40 countries, including astrophysicist Avery Broderick from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., were involved in creating the photograph over a four-day period in 2017.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” Sheperd Doeleman from Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative said in Washington.
The photo is believed to help confirm the theory of general relativity first posited by Albert Einstein a century ago.
Moedas quoted another famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, in attempting to underline the significant of the discovery.
“It is said that facts are sometimes stranger than fiction. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of black holes,” he said.
“Black holes are stranger than anything ever dreamt up by science fiction writers, but they are firmly matters of science fact.”
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press
This story has been corrected to show that the black hole is located in the M87 galaxy, and not the Milky Way.