The 347 Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) scientists who collaborated to produce the world’s first image of Galaxy M87’s gargantuan black hole were honored Thursday with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, winning $3 million dollars for what is known as the “Oscars of science.” It’s an image sure to equal the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in December 1968.
“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 releasing the image on April 10, 2019.
The size of our solar system
“We are giving humanity its first view of a black hole — a one-way door out of our universe,” said EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics, of the release of the image on April 10th of the six billion solar mass gartanguan black hole at the center of elliptical galaxy M87 as it was 55 million years ago. “This is a landmark in astronomy, an unprecedented scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.”
“Over those eons, we emerged on Earth along with our myths, differentiated cultures, ideologies, languages and varied beliefs,” said astrophysicist Janna Levin author of Black Hole Blues with Columbia University about actually seeing the black hole as it was 55 million years ago. “Looking at M87, I am reminded that scientific discoveries transcend those differences.”
The image below shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around the M87 black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. This long-sought image provides the strongest evidence to date for the existence of supermassive black holes and opens a new window onto the study of black holes, their event horizons, and gravity. Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration.
“The gates of hell, the end of space and time
“The gates of hell, the end of space and time,” 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.”
Directed by Shep Doelman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the team spent over a decade simulating an Earth-sized computational telescope that combined the signals received by eight radio telescopes working in pairs around the world. Using this technique, they were able achieve an unprecedented resolution and observe the black hole’s silhouette for the first time in history, confirming theoretical predictions about these celestial objects.
“For many years, I would tell people that we were going to image a black hole, and they would say, ‘Well, we’ll believe it when we see it,’ Doelman told AFP in an interview. “But when you finally come with very strong evidence, when you make a breakthrough like this, then you have the satisfaction of really giving birth to a new field. We are now in an era of precision imaging of black holes, we can approach the event horizon and map spacetime for the first time. We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”
“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.
Now in its eighth year, the Breakthrough Prize was launched by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to recognize and reward the world’s top scientists. Winners will be recognized at a gala awards ceremony on November 3, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.