First-ever image of a black hole released, sparking wonder

National News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers from around the globe with the National Science Foundation released the first-ever photo taken of a black hole Wednesday. 

It was captured by the NSF-funded Event Horizon Telescope. The photo was created by observations made two years ago with eight radio telescopes, which –in combination– made a virtual telescope dish the size as large as the Earth.

The photo shows a supermassive black hole at the center of a neighboring galaxy known as Messier 87, about 55 million light-years away from Earth. The black hole is 6.5 billion times more massive than our Sun. 

Scientists and lovers of astronomy have been waiting eagerly for this image. It depicts the black hole in the center of the photo surrounded by a glowing ring.

NSF unveiled this image at a series of press briefings held simultaneously in six cities around the world.

The first-ever image of a black hole, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. Courtesy: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

The National Science Foundation explains black holes as dense cosmic objects that have a massive amount of matter but are very compact in size. NSF says they create a gravitational field so strong, everything — including light — is drawn inside. 

Black holes can warp spacetime and super-heat surrounding material. 

NSF explained that most black holes are the condensed cored of former stars that are left behind following an explosive supernova. 

According to NASA, based on the number of stars large enough to produce black holes, scientists estimate there are as many as ten million to a billion black holes in the Milky Way galaxy alone. 

According to the Space Telescope Science Institute, the nearest black hole to Earth is in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, 28 thousand light years away from our planet 

As NASA noted as part of an educational series, do not fear, these black holes don’t go around swallowing up planets. 

“They follow the laws of gravity just like other objects in space,” a NASA  article noted. “The orbit of a black hole would have to be very close to the solar system to affect Earth, which is not likely.”

‘I never thought we’d be able to do it in my lifetime’

When the image was released Wednesday morning, University of Texas at Austin Professor of Astrophysics Karl Gebhardt had been waiting in anticipation.

Gebhardt has been studying black holes and trying to measure them for more than two decades, including the very black hole that was photographed by this new telescope project. 

The researchers who photographed this black hole had given him a heads up the photo would be released Wednesday, they had requested his previous research on the mass of that black hole conducted at UT’s Texas McDonald Observatory.

“I never thought we’d be able to do it in my lifetime as a researcher, and it blows me away that they did,” Gebhardt said. 

“That is so impressive!” he exclaimed, marveling at the image. “You’re staring into spacetime, you’re staring into this region where gravity curved so much, that basically it sucked spacetime into itself and it closed off from our universe, that’s why you get this darkness on that hole.”

“I never expected something that sharp, it looks kind of fuzzy to the untrained eye,” Gebhardt noted. He explained that the glowing ring around the black hole in the image is background gas.

“And it’s doing some funky motions just because of the distortions, but that’s the emptiness!” he said of the black hole image.  

Gebhardt has studied M87, the galaxy where this black hole is located. Ten years ago he estimated the mass of that particular black hole and he says the “icing on the cake” of this new photo is the scientists who worked on it found the black hole to have a mass almost exactly the same as the one he had estimated. 

And that black hole has a lot of mass.

Gebhardt said it’s important to understand that black holes have an event horizon: the point around the black hole where there is so much mass in such a small volume of space that “spacetime effectively closes in on itself,” and where nothing, not even light can escape. 

“Whatever is in there has no access to our universe anymore,” he said of the things that have passed the event horizon. 

This particular black hole’s event horizon is so massive that our entire solar system could fit inside of it, Gebhardt noted.  

“I’ve been working on black holes for 25 years now, I just measure their masses, but there’s no way I can get close to an image,” he said. “And to see the actual silhouette of a black hole with the actual background of gas — kind of blows me away!”

Gebhardt said that while learning more about black holes may not have an immediate impact on the public, it may help researchers understand more about how black holes and gravity work. He believes research like the work which led to this photo of a black hole can help the public to both understand and get excited about science. 

“I love the unknown, I love trying to understand the physics of the basic universe, what the universe is trying to tell us,” Gebhardt said. “There are clues.”

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