The South Pole Telescope: part of the EHT (Amble)Astronomers have captured the first ever image of a black hole. They say it will greatly further our understanding of these mysterious objects. The image is of the Messier 87 galaxy, which lies 55 million light years from Earth. It shows a bright orange halo of dust and gas, tracing the outline of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. It has an estimated mass equivalent to that of 6.5 billion times that of our Sun, condensed into a tiny speck. The image was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes located in different parts of the globe, including Antarctica, Spain and Chile. The project involved more than 200 scientists.
The image of a black hole captured by the EHTThe halo is the black hole’s accretion disc, a fuzzy ring of gas and dust. The EHT detected radiation emitted by particles heated to billions of degrees Celsius swirling around the black hole at close to the speed of light before they disappear into it.
The black hole itself—a tiny region of space with a force of gravity so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape—cannot be seen. Instead, the image is of its shadow, the closest we can get to actually viewing a black hole. The black hole’s boundary, also known as the event horizon (from which the EHT takes its name), measures just under 40 billion kilometres across. This may sound huge, but seen from 55 million light years away it is the equivalent of picking out a doughnut on the surface of the Moon from Earth. The EHT achieved the resolution necessary by combining data from eight radio telescopes, effectively creating a telescope the size of the Earth.
The observations are already giving scientists insights into the region of space close to a black hole, where gravity is so powerful that reality as we know it is distorted beyond recognition. Here, for example, light is bent in such a way that if you stood there you would be able to see the back of your head.
A supermassive black hole (NASA)The above image is an artist's impression of a supermassive black hole, surrounded by matter spiralling into it. The matter forms what is called an accretion disc. This disc forms as the dust and gas in a galaxy falls into the hole, attracted by its enormous gravitational pull. In the case of the Messier 87 galaxy, the black hole has a mass estimated to be 6.5 billion times that of our Sun. Also shown is an outflowing jet of high-energy particles, ejected by the black hole's spin.
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