Sci­en­tists pro­duce first pic­ture of a black hole

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY SETH BOREN­STEIN


Sci­en­tists on Wed­nes­day re­vealed the first im­age ever made of a black hole, de­pict­ing a fiery ring of grav­ity-twisted light swirling around the edge of an abyss.

The pic­ture, as­sem­bled from data gath­ered by eight ra­dio tele­scopes around the world, shows the hot, shad­owy lip of a su­per­mas­sive black hole, one of the light-suck­ing mon­sters of the universe the­o­rized by Einstein more than a cen­tury ago and con­firmed by ob­ser­va­tions for decades. It is along this edge that light bends around it­self in a cos­mic fun­house ef­fect.

“We have seen what we thought was un­see­able. We have seen and taken a pic­ture of a black hole,” Shep­erd Doeleman of Har­vard, leader of a team of about 200 sci­en­tists from 20 coun­tries, an­nounced as the col­orized orange-and­black pic­ture was un­veiled.

Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo physi­cist Avery Brod­er­ick, a codis­cov­erer, de­clared: “Sci­ence fic­tion has be­come sci­ence fact.”

In fact, Jes­sica Dempsey, a co-dis­cov­erer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery cir­cle re­minded her of the flam­ing Eye of Sau­ron from the “Lord of the Rings” tril­ogy.

Un­like smaller black holes that come from col­lapsed stars, su­per­mas­sive black holes are mys­te­ri­ous in ori­gin. Si­t­u­ated at the cen­ter of most gal­ax­ies, in­clud­ing ours, they are so dense that noth­ing, not even light, can es­cape their grav­i­ta­tional pull. This one’s “event hori­zon” – the precipice, or point of no re­turn, where light and mat­ter be­gin to fall in­ex­orably into the hole – is as big as our en­tire so­lar sys­tem.

Three years ago, sci­en­tists us­ing an ex­traor­di­nar­ily sen­si­tive ob­serv­ing sys­tem heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merg­ing to cre­ate a grav­i­ta­tional wave, as Al­bert Einstein pre­dicted. The new im­age, pub­lished in the Astro­phys­i­cal Jour­nal Let­ters and an­nounced around the world, adds light to that sound.

Out­side sci­en­tists sug­gested the achievement could be wor­thy of a No­bel Prize, just like the grav­i­ta­tional wave dis­cov­ery.

“I think it looks very con­vinc­ing,” said An­drea Ghez, director of the UCLA Ga­lac­tic Cen­ter Group, who wasn’t part of the dis­cov­ery team.

The im­age helps con­firm Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein a cen­tury ago even pre­dicted the sym­met­ri­cal shape that sci­en­tists just found.

The pic­ture was made with

equip­ment that de­tects wave­lengths that can’t be seen by the human eye, so astronomers added color to con­vey the fe­ro­cious heat of the gas and dust, glow­ing at a tem­per­a­ture of per­haps mil­lions of de­grees.

But if a per­son were to some­how get close to this black hole, it might not look quite like that, astronomers said.

The black hole is about 6 bil­lion times the mass of our sun and is in a gal­axy called M87 that is about 53 mil­lion light-years from Earth. One light-year is 5.9 tril­lion miles, or 9.5 tril­lion kilo­me­ters.

Black holes are the “most ex­treme en­vi­ron­ment in the known universe,” Brod­er­ick said, a vi­o­lent, churn­ing place of “grav­ity run amok.”

While much of the mat­ter around a black hole gets sucked into the vor­tex, never to be seen again, the new pic­ture cap­tures gas and dust that are lucky to be cir­cling just far enough to be safe and to be seen mil­lions of years later on Earth.

Despite decades of study, there are a few peo­ple who deny black holes ex­ist, and this work shows that they do, said Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity as­tronomer pro­fes­sor Alan Marscher, a co-dis­cov­erer.

The project cost $50 mil­lion to $60 mil­lion, with $28 mil­lion of that com­ing from the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion.

The same team has gath­ered even more data on a black hole in the cen­ter of our gal­axy, but sci­en­tists said the ob­ject is so jumpy they don’t have a good pic­ture yet.


This im­age re­leased Wed­nes­day by Event Hori­zon Te­le­scope shows a black hole, one of the light-suck­ing mon­sters of the universe the­o­rized by Al­bert Einstein more than a cen­tury ago.

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