This week, the world got a glimpse of something more than 50 million light-years away, something that many scientists thought we’d never be able to see or even confirm the existence of: a black hole.
A team of scientists released the image this week during a highly anticipated announcement that streamed worldwide in several languages. The picture is blurry yet still striking, showing what looks like a flaming, lopsided ring of light surrounded by eerie black backdrop. Many viewers compared it to the Eye of Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
The image is the result of a decadelong global collaboration between scientists, called the Event Horizon Telescope Project. Using telescope equipment in observatories from the deserts of Chile to Hawaiian volcanoes to chilly Antarctic tundra, the team was able to create what they referred to as an “Earth-sized telescope.” To give you an idea of its scope, it would be powerful enough to read a newspaper in New York – all the way from a sidewalk in Paris.
For 10 days in April 2017, the array of telescopes turned toward the black hole, which is located in a massive galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster. During that time, it collected more than a five petabytes of data. If a petabyte doesn’t mean anything to you, just know that it’s so much data that it had to be stored on half a ton of hard drives.
Over the past two years, scientists have painstakingly arranged that data into the first image ever recorded of a black hole.
What’s a Black Hole, Anyway?
Even with the new information we have about black holes, it’s difficult for us Earth-dwelling humans to comprehend the incredible natural phenomenon that is a black hole.
One of the wildest aspects of a black hole is its size. The black hole we have an image of has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the sun. It’s also difficult to grasp just how far away that black hole is from us. This one is about 55 million light-years away in Messier 87, meaning it’s so far that it has taken 55 million years for that image to travel to Earth. In other words, this black hole image is actually a photo of what the black hole looked like an entire 55 million years ago.
A black hole is, essentially, a point of no return. Scientists refer to the edge of one as the “event horizon,” and once something – anything! – has passed it, that something will be unable to resist the incredibly powerful gravitational pull within. They have the power to literally disrupt the entire universe.
So How Big of a Deal Is This?
This is a huge deal.
The idea of black holes have tantalized everyone from geniuses like Einstein (whose equations and theory of relativity first introduced the idea that they could exist) to sci-fi filmmakers who dramatized being sucked into one.
Still, before this week, many astronomers and scientists were on the fence about how black holes really did fit into our existence in this giant world. Now, thanks to a team of more than 200 scientists including Katie Bouman, who helped to develop the algorithm that made this possible, we have the image of one.
But it’s more than just a picture. This could help usher in a new era of astrophysics, allowing scientists to push forward with new theories about the place of black holes in the universe, how they were formed and how their existence ties into ours. It’s an exciting time to be alive (and a good time to be 55 million light-years away from that event horizon).