Black holes are some of the most fascinating–and mysterious–objects in space. And now, for the first time, we’ve managed to capture one in an image!
It looks a little bit like a pumpkin spice doughnut. Or maybe a cosmic-sized Spaghetti-O. The New York Times compared it to the Eye of Sauron. But the image is also one of the most significant milestones in modern astronomy since Pluto got demoted.
Event Horizon Telescope
The supermassive black hole in the photo is more than 50 million light-years away in the galaxy M87. A team of more than 200 researchers around the world collaborated on the Event Horizon Telescope project, which linked an array of radio telescopes to create the composite image.
Three years ago, MIT grad student Katie Bouman developed the algorithm that helped make Event Horizon Telescope project possible. She worked to turn the data collected by the planet-sized telescope array into something that made sense to the human eye.
And as for those people who think the picture underwhelming? “No matter what we did, you would have to bend over backwards crazy to get something that wasn’t this ring,” Bouman clapped back.
Why Couldn’t They Just Take a Real Photograph?
The short answer is that black holes devour light. Nothing escapes, not even photons. Without light to bounce off mirrors inside a camera, there’s no “picture” to snap.
A black hole is an object so massive and dense that it completely warps gravity. The black hole in the image is about 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun! Despite its size, the black hole in question is also very, very far away. That makes it effectively impossible to see using photography.
Instead of creating an image with light waves, radio telescopes use a different wavelength of energy to create images of distant objects in space. Neat, huh?
How Are Black Holes Formed?
After a massive star dies in a supernova, the core that’s left behind faces different fates depending on its size and density. Some cores will become white dwarves. If the core is heavier, it might become a neutron star. But the most massive stars can produce a black hole.
Black holes can also be formed if two stars collide with each other. But the black hole in the image is a supermassive black hole. Astronomers predict that black holes like that one exist at the heart of pretty much every galaxy in the universe–including our own Milky Way!