Scientists have revealed the first-ever glimpse of a super-massive black hole on Wednesday, as the Event Horizon Telescope released the first results of its findings, in a "ground-breaking" discovery that proves Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.
An international scientific team on Wednesday announced a milestone in astrophysics – the first-ever photo of a black hole – using a global network of telescopes to gain insight into celestial objects with gravitational fields so strong no matter or light can escape.
The research was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international collaboration begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole using a global network of Earth-based telescopes.
Scientists have revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world.Credit:Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP
The announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo.
The image reveals the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides about 54 million light-years from Earth.
Black holes, phenomenally dense celestial entities, are extraordinarily difficult to observe despite their great mass. A black hole's event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion.
"This is a huge day in astrophysics," said US National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. "We're seeing the unseeable."
The fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult. The scientists look for a ring of light – disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole's shadow or silhouette.
The project's researchers obtained the first data in April 2017 using telescopes in the US states of Arizona and Hawaii as well as in Mexico, Chile, Spain and Antarctica.
Since then, telescopes in France and Greenland have been added to the global network. The global network of telescopes has essentially created a planet-sized observational dish.
The existence of black holes, one of the more mysterious objects in the cosmos, has been universally accepted even though little is known about them. Black holes form from remnants of a large star that dies in a supernova explosion. Scientists estimate there could be as many as a billion black holes in the Milky Way, according to NASA.
The EHT's work focuses on two super-massive black holes – the first, dubbed Sagittarius A* – sits at the centre of the Milky Way with a mass of about 4.3 million times that of the sun and located 25,000 light years from Earth.
The second lies at the core of the M87 elliptical galaxy, about 50 million light years from Earth, and is 1500 times more massive than the Sagittarius A-star.
The images represent a major scientific accomplishment and "an opportunity to rethink the cosmos and our place in it", Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, wrote in an opinion article for The New York Times.
The images would also test Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity and whether they hold true close to the black hole, she said.
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