The image - revealed during a Wednesday (April 10) morning press conference in Washington D.C., per The New York Times - depicts luminous gas swirling around a supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, within the constellation Virgo, some 55 million light-years away.
Einstein first theorized about black holes a century ago, when he imagined gravity as a distortion of space and time, and surmised that an object small and enough and massive enough could hide behind an event horizon.
The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an worldwide collaboration begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole using a global network of Earth-based telescopes. What you're actually seeing is one of the most powerful forces in the universe sucking in everything around it, and it's just the beginning for the Event Horizon Telescope.
The official Weibo account for the government of the southwestern Sichuan province compared the fiery black hole image to spicy hot pot, a local delicacy. The telescopes are outfitted with technology specifically to make their observations of a black hole more accurate, and more likely, to happen, EHT director Shep Doeleman said at the press conference.
It is also estimated to be 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun.
"As an astrophysicist, this is a thrilling day for me", said National Science Foundation Director France A. Córdova.
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"We have seen what we thought was unseeable".
"It did bring tears to my eyes", Cordova added. No - it's a black hole! "While we now have good indirect evidence that they exist, getting a direct view of a black hole is the ultimate dream for a lot of physicists". A black hole is, by definition, not an object one can touch or see but rather a region of space with such intense gravity that no form of matter can escape, including light. The shape of the black hole's shadow matches theoretical predictions made 40 years ago by astrophysicists Jim Bardeen and Jean-Pierre Luminet. These measurements are the first step toward a deeper understanding of how spacetime warps in the presence of mass and energy, the basis of Einstein's theory of general relativity. With M87, it deviated from flawless circularity by less than 10 percent. Another supermassive black hole sits at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, although it is significantly smaller than the one in M87.
No one knew what a black hole looked like before today.
"Science fiction has become science fact", University of Arizona astronomy professor Daniel Marrone said. "It is just a fundamental statement about nature".
The results from the planet-wide array of eight radio telescopes are the first direct measurements of the structure of a black hole and its surrounding environment.
The project, which relied on data from a global network of telescopes, targeted two supermassive black holes at the centre of different galaxies. For example, NASA has previously spotted a jet of high-energy particles spurting out from the center of M87, moving at close to the speed of light. The image is very similar to numerous artists' drawings through the years of what scientists believed a black hole looked like.