This is the first image of a black hole ever captured - and it's supermassive

Wednesday, 10th April 2019, 3:16 pm
Updated Wednesday, 10th April 2019, 3:17 pm

It's an image which was decades in the making.

Scientists today released the first picture ever to be taken of a black hole.

The image was immediately hailed as one of the scientific breakthroughs of the decade, taking us closer than ever before to proving these enigmatic cosmic entities really do exist.

It's the first direct visual evidence of a black hole – located 55 million light years from Earth and 6.5 billion times as heavy as the sun.

“We have taken the first picture of a black hole. This is an extraordinary scientific feat,” said project director Sheperd S Doeleman, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

A computer simulation of the black hole, surrounded by hot plasma, which gives greater detail than the real image (Z. Younsi, UCL)

It is 40 billion kilometres across – three million times the diameter of the Earth – putting it into the category of ‘supermassive black hole’, the biggest kind there is. It is surrounded by hot plasma and nestled at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, part of the Virgo galaxy cluster that also includes the Milky Way.

“This provides the strongest evidence to date that such evasive and enigmatic entities do indeed exist,” added Ziri Younsi, of University College London.

“It’s the closest we can get to imaging a black hole, which is an object with such a strong gravitational field that no light or matter can escape,” he said.

Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun pic.twitter.com/AymXilKhKe

— Event Horizon 'Scope (@ehtelescope) April 10, 2019

How the images were captured

The scientists captured the image of the black hole using a telescope so powerful you could read a newspaper in New York from a London sidestreet.

Known as The Event Horizon Telescope, this virtual telescope is made up of eight existing radio telescopes that were synchronised across the world. They are located in volcanoes in Hawai’i and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert and Antartica.

Radio telescopes pick up the radio waves emitted by astronomical objects with their enormous dish antennae.

Using a technique known as 'interferometry', in which astronomers at observatories on different continents observe the same object, the data collected from the eight telescopes was combined on a supercomputer.

This requires all the telescopes in the array to swivel towards the target black hole and measure every radio wave coming from its direction.

The data was then converted them into visual images to create an optical representation of the radio waves. Astronomical objects give off radio waves of varying strengths and frequencies, and it is these discrepancies that enable a visual picture to be built of the – enormous to tiny – objects behind them.

What is a black hole?

Black holes are extraordinary astronomical objects that are not actually holes at all. In fact they are incredibly heavy relative to their size. Their huge density gives them a gravitational pull that is so strong nothing can escape, not even electromagnetic particles such as light.

'Eye of Sauron'

Meanwhile, the image's likeness to the Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings has not gone unnoticed.

#EHTBlackHole that's no black hole, they found Sauron. Middle Earth here we come pic.twitter.com/Hqqn9apg75

— NoleMan (@NoleMan22) April 10, 2019

A version of this story was originally published on our sister title, iNews