Astrophysicist Janna Levin author of Black Hole Blues with Columbia University notes for The Guardian that we are actually seeing the black hole as it was 55 million years ago, because it’s so far away the light takes that long to reach us. “Over those eons, we emerged on Earth along with our myths, differentiated cultures, ideologies, languages and varied beliefs,” she says. “Looking at M87, I am reminded that scientific discoveries transcend those differences.”
“The gates of hell, the end of space and time.” That was how black holes were described at the press conference in Brussels where the first ever photograph of one was revealed to an excited audience. And this black hole, a super-massive object at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87 shown above), really is a monster, observed Ellie Mae O’Hagan for The Guardian. “Everything unfortunate enough to get too close to it falls in and never emerges again, including light itself. It’s the point at which every physical law of the known universe collapses. Perhaps it is the closest thing there is to hell: it is an abyss, a moment of oblivion.”
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the effort to capture the image, during a Wednesday news conference in Washington, D.C.
“Making an image of a black hole doesn’t come easily, as many people can tell you,” said Shep Doeleman, an astrophysicist at Harvard University and project director of the global endeavor known as the Event Horizon Telescope (see video at bottom of the page). “But we consider ourselves to be explorers. We exposed a part of the universe that had never been seen before.”
The breakthrough image shows a ring of fuzzy light orbiting a dark circular center. The light is from the superheated gas as it is being bent by gravity around the black hole itself, Doeleman said. “This is the geometry of space and time being laid bare to you,” he said. “You are seeing the gravitational well of the black hole.”
“We’ve been studying black holes so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us has actually seen one,” says France Córdova, the director of the National Science Foundation, which funded the effort. The Event Horizon Telescope is actually 10 telescopes, sprinkled across four continents in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Antarctica, and designed to scan the cosmos in radio waves. For a few days in April 2017, the observatories studied the skies in tandem, creating a gargantuan telescope nearly the size of the planet.
The Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Atacama, Chile, one of several telescopes across the globe that make up the Event Horizon Telescope, is shown above. (Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO)
“Imagine taking a hammer, smashing a radio dish, and spreading the fragments all over the Earth,” Doeleman said recently while describing the project at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “In reality, we did that by linking up telescopes on different continents and timing the data-taking perfectly.”
“It was phenomenal,” said Daniel Stern, a cosmologist who studies black hole formation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, after he woke up at 6 a.m. to watch live as Doeleman unveiled the picture at a news conference in Washington, D.C.. “This will go down in the annals of astronomy as one of the greatest images ever taken.”
At 9:07 a.m. EDT, Doeleman took the podium at the D.C. press club and said, “Here it is.” The simple, bold, orange-hued image flashed on the big screen behind him. Simultaneously the image appeared on the project’s web site, and quickly went viral online, with the predictable parodies and expert commentary on how much it looked like the Eye of Sauron from “Lord of the Rings.”
“You’re basically looking at a supermassive black hole that’s almost the size of our solar system,” or 38 billion kilometers in diameter, said Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam who spoke at the Washington news conference.
“The impact of really seeing it for the first time, it was really surprising, kind of emotional,” said Markoff, who along with other scientists got their first look at an early image of the M87 black hole last summer, and although it generally matched what the computer models had predicted a black hole would look like, she was still in awe. “I walked around with the image on my cellphone and I kept pulling it out and looking at it at random moments. And I couldn’t tell anybody.”
“Hardest thing ever,” said theoretical astrophysicist Avery Broderick of the Perimeter Institute, who kept giving lectures on black holes but was forced to keep the image secret while his colleagues refined the data and wrote the papers about what the image signified. “You can tell no one.” The news conference Wednesday, he said, “is an enormous psychological relief to me.”
Feryal Ozel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona and member of the science council for the EHT, called the result the highlight of her career. “We are able to image one more object in the universe that … at one point people thought could not be possible,” she said. “It hits that human explorer spirit. We got another look into the unknown.”
Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale, said that Einstein must be delighted. “His theory has just been stress-tested under conditions of extreme gravity, and looks to have held up.”
Einstein’s theory suggested that a massive object like the Earth would bend the fabric of space-time around it just a little, like placing a golf ball in the middle of a taut bedsheet, reported the LA Times. But a black hole has such enormous gravity that it would rip the space-time fabric apart.
In theory, you can make a black hole out of any amount of mass, as long as it is squeezed tightly enough to be sufficiently dense. “If you took a baseball and crushed it down small enough, eventually it would rip the fabric of space-time too,” said Caltech physicist Fiona Harrison.
Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, and who shared a Nobel Prize in 2017 for the discovery of gravitational waves from colliding black holes, wrote in an email: “It is wonderful to see the nearly circular shadow of the black hole. There can be no doubt this really is a black hole at the center of M87, with no signs of deviations from general relativity.”
Now the reality has a face. Peter Galison, a physicist, filmmaker and historian at Harvard, and a member of the Event Horizon team, noted that there is “a wonderful open-ended sense of being able to see something” instead of merely accumulating statistical evidence.
Still, questions about gravity and the universe abound. “We know there must be something more,” Broderick, a physicist at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, told the audience in Washington, D.C. “Black holes are one of the places to look for answers.”
“The plan is to carry out these observations indefinitely and see how things change,” said Doeleman. “It’s astonishing to think humans can turn the Earth into a telescope and see a black hole,” and still more amazing to do it with this team, he said. “That’s the best.”
Their work isn’t done: Doeleman said his team is still analyzing the data from observations of Sagittarius A*, which he described as a dynamic and exciting black hole compared to the more stately M87 black hole. It may be possible to capture short-term changes in Sagittarius A*.
“Imagine if we can make a movie of a black hole instead of a still image,” Doeleman said in an EHT talk last month at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas. “We want to make a movie in real time of things orbiting around the black hole. That’s what we want to do over the next decade.
Over the longer haul, the EHT collaboration would like the virtual scope to include an off-planet dish. “World domination is not enough for us; we also want to go into space,” Doeleman said. “If we could put a space-based radio telescope in orbit around the Earth, it would sweep out even more of that virtual mirror and do it much more quickly.”
Andrea Ghez, an astrophysicist at UCLA’s Galactic Center Group who has been studying Sagittarius A* for two decades, told the LA Times that she was a little disappointed that the first image wasn’t of our local supermassive black hole. But that feeling didn’t last long. “I was delighted to see that they saw the ring so clearly,” she said. “There was a lot of concern that they would only see a partial ring.”