It’s been a great year so far for space fans, with a partial solar eclipse, super blood moon eclipse and a Venus and Jupiter conjunction. Now there is another exciting development to look forward to: the first ever photos of a black hole.
At the center of Messier 87, a super-giant elliptical galaxy, discovered in 1781 by the French astronomer Charles Messier, exists a super-massive black hole called M87. This all-consuming region of space-time is located more than 55 million light-years from Earth and is estimated to have a light-sucking core 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun. Black holes are made up of huge amounts of matter squeezed into a small area, creating a massive gravitational field which draws in everything around it, including light.
Despite its super-massive size, M87 is far enough away from us to present a massive challenge for any one telescope to capture. It would require something with a resolution more than 1,000 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope to pull off. Instead, hundreds ofresearchers from 40 countries decided to create something bigger.
8 pre-existing telescopes around the world, synchronized with ultra-precise atomic clocks, were collected in a network called Event Horizon Telescope, to form a single virtual telescope with a diameter as big as Earth’s one – about 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). The picture comes from data captured over a span of nine days in April 2017. It’s taken two years to actually unpack and analyze all of the observatories’ data.
“It is certainly the photo of the century.” Ciriaco Goddi, secretary of the scientific council of the EHT consortium and scientific director of the BlackHoleCam project, explains: “Although there were already indirect measures of the existence of a black hole, this is the first direct and experimental test that shows an object of this kind. And it is also a confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity”.
NSF Director France Córdova said: “We’re seeing the unseeable. Black holes have sparked imaginations for decades. They have exotic properties and are mysterious to us. Yet with more observations like this one they are yielding their secrets. This is why NSF exists.” She further added, “We enable scientists and engineers to illuminate the unknown, to reveal the subtle and complex majesty of our universe.”