First close-up picture of ‘supermassive black hole’ unveiled
Feat described as equivalent to ‘locating an apple on the surface of the moon’
The first ever photo of a black hole, taken using a global network of telescopes, conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project. Photograph: Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)/National Science Foundation/Reuters
The first close-up picture of a black hole taken deep in space was unveiled on Wednesday.
The event was awe-inspiring for the world and immensely significant for every astrophysicist who gazes into the universe according to Prof Peter Gallagher of Dublin Institute of Advanced studies (DIAS). Prof Gallagher hosted a gathering in Dublin on Wednesday to witness “the first time we have seen the edge of a black hole”. This one is in the M87 galaxy, over “500 billion, billion kilometres away”.
The feat which was described as equivalent to “locating an apple on the surface of the moon” was achieved by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT); in reality a combination of eight radio telescopes placed around Planet Earth.
The image it delivered shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times bigger than the Sun.
There were gasps in the room, but not when the image was thrown up on a screen at a briefing in Brussels. It was in the minutes beforehand when the connection to Europe was lost fleetingly. When the black hole was revealed, it was greeted by a warm round of applause. Six other press conferences were taking place simultaneously around the globe.
A black hole is a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter, light or radiation can escape from it. It’s one of the Universe’s most enigmatic structures, where all known physical laws break down. Leading EHT scientist Prof Heino Falcke remarked: “It feels like looking at the gates of hell; the end of space and time.”
Its relationship with the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces have consumed scientists for over a century, ever since Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity in 1915, explained Prof Gallagher, who helped develop Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle in Co Offaly.
Every galaxy is believed to harbour one of these gargantuan formations at its centre including the Milky Way. Originally, black holes were just one mathematical solution to Einstein’s equations. There was no guarantee they corresponded to real astronomical objects. Even Einstein was sceptical that they existed, he confirmed.
But all has changed. “Radio telescopes like EHT and indeed the I-LOFAR radio telescope at Birr Castle enables us to test Einstein’s theory of gravity at the most extreme locations in the universe.”
Astronaut Chris Hadfield happened to be in Dublin coinciding with the occasion and joined DIAS scientists in tuning in to the big reveal. He said it was “like filling in an enormous blank”, as ever since Einstein theorised about the existence of black holes they were the subject of intense study.
It was “immensely reassuring that it looks like what was predicted”, he said. In his view, it “looks like a wicked, enormous, high-temperature drain”.
“Seeing is believing. I don’t say those words lightly,” he added.