Tech & Science

'We Have Seen the Unseeable': This Is the First-Ever Image of a Black Hole

Scientists have unveiled the first-ever image of a black hole, showing a ring of light around the object’s event horizon. The announcement was made at news conferences across the globe.

In Washington, D.C., France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, introduced a panel of scientists working on the Event Horizon Telescope project. She said that the team behind EHT had informed and enhanced the understanding of black holes.

“We’ve been studying black holes for so long, it’s easy to forget that none of us have ever seen one,” she said. The mammoth task the team undertook allowed it to create the first, sharp image of an event horizon—the point of no return beyond which nothing can escape the black hole's gravitational pull, she added.

Sheperd Doeleman, the EHT's director, said that black holes were “the most mysterious objects in the universe” and that until now our “best idea of what they look like come from simulations.” Right before matter falls into a black hole, it becomes superheated, making it shine extremely bright.

first black hole image The first image ever seen of a black hole. Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

“Infalling gas creates a ring of light. Then [there is] a dark patch that prevents light from escaping,” Doeleman said. “We worked for over a decade to link telescopes around the globe. The EHT gets the highest resolution possible from Earth. We are delighted to report we have seen what we thought was the unseeable. [It is a] remarkable achievement…. We have visual evidence of a black hole.”

The image was already providing information we did not have, he said, but far more exciting research is to come. “We now have an entirely new way of studying general relativity. This is just the beginning.”

Black holes are regions of space where the gravitational field is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape. Matter is dragged in and squeezed into a tiny space.

“Think of a star 10 times more massive than the sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City,” NASA said. The matter is dragged into a black hole past its event horizon. This marks the boundary between space and the black hole itself. At the center of a black hole lies a gravitational "singularity," where density and gravity are infinite.

The EHT team linked telescopes around the world to create one virtual, Earth-size telescope. Until now, the resolution of images of black holes was too low, so they looked like just a bright blur. The new image, Doeleman said, was equivalent to reading the date on a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.

The black hole in the image sits in the galaxy Messier 87, around 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole is about 6.5 billion times the size of our sun, which is roughly equivalent to our entire solar system.  

The image returned by the EHT will allow scientists to better understand these regions of space, potentially allowing them to test out theories relating to quantum physics and general relativity. Because of the extreme gravitational forces found at black holes, they can essentially serve as laboratories for extreme physics. At the moment, quantum theory and the general theory of relativity are at odds.

“We have these assumptions about how the universe works, these well-tested theories, but at a black hole something is wrong and we don’t know what it is,” Vincent Fish, an EHT scientist from the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts, told Newsweek in 2017.

“It’ll give us a better understanding of whether general relativity is an accurate description of the space-time around a black hole,” he said. “For general relativity, we’ve been assuming it’s correct. There have been some tests of relativity in the weak field limit going back to 1919 with [Arthur] Eddington and the solar eclipse. But we haven’t really been able to do any tests in the strong field limit. And there’s really no stronger field than a black hole.”

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