The first-ever picture of a black hole is fuzzy. These incredible illustrations help explain what it shows.
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
- Scientists on Wednesday published the first picture of a black hole, which was put together using the Event Horizon Telescope.
- The radio-wave photo shows a supermassive black hole, its event horizon, and accretion disk at the center of galaxy Messier 87.
- Researchers expected the image to look "fuzzy" but say it's nonetheless awesome and unprecedented.
- Computer models help explain why the image looks the way it does, and why it's so exciting.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
Nearly 235 years after black holes were first theorized to exist, scientists have taken the first-ever clear picture of one. The image shows a supermassive black hole at the center of "supergiant" galaxy called Messier 87, or M87.
The black hole weighs about as much as 6.5 billion suns, and the shadow of its event horizon - where gravity is so strong not even light can travel fast enough to escape - stretches about 25 billion miles (40 billion kilometers) wide. That's more than three times the diameter of Pluto's orbit in our solar system.
"We're looking at a region that we've never looked at before - a region we cannot imagine being there. It feels like looking at the gates of Hell, at the end of space and time," Heino Falcke, an astrophysicist at Radboud University Nijmegen and an EHT collaborator, said during a live press briefing.
The unprecedented photo was taken in radio wavelengths of light by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which is a "virtual" observatory the size of Earth. (The group published six studies about their research in Astrophysical Journal Letters.)
The picture is also a bit small and hard to discern, though this was hardly unexpected. Before the image went public, Misty Bentz, an astrophysicist at Georgia State University, told Business Insider she anticipated "more of a 'fuzzy blob'" than anything else.
"It's important to remember that we're talking about pictures of objects that are on the scale of our solar system, but we are viewing them from ... 54 million light-years away," Bentz said.
To understand what the first picture of a black hole actually shows, it helps to look at a series of simulated images that astrophysicists and computer scientists generated long before Wednesday's big announcement.
The Event Horizon Telescope is made up of observatories located around the world. Working together, they can function as a single "virtual" telescope.
Collaborators from about 40 countries knew photographing a black hole — even a huge one — would be hard. Falcke said seeing M87's black hole was like being able to view a mustard seed in Brussels from Washington, DC.
Astrophysicists and computer scientists worked on advanced models of supermassive black holes to anticipate what EHT would show.
Researchers based these and other simulations on relativistic physics (how the universe works at extreme speeds and densities) that Albert Einstein pioneered in the early 1900s.
Since Einstein's discoveries, new research has revealed in detail the features black holes should have, including the monster at the heart of galaxy M87.
Some simulations animate black holes close-up and over long spans of time. This one shows what an orbiting "hot spot" of matter in an accretion disk would look from multiple perspectives. It shows how black holes dramatically warp the fabric of space.
This animation shows a slice of a rotating accretion disk, and where it's least dense (blue) to most dense (red).
EHT's image shows a black hole in radio waves of about 1.3 millimeters in wavelength. This visualization shows what a black hole might look in light ranging from 10mm down to 0.001mm. (Human eyes can detect light ranging from 0.00075mm down to 0.0004mm.)
Black holes are tangled messes of magnetic fields (white lines), thanks to their spin and orbiting disk of superheated matter (orange). This animation shows the relativistic jets (gray) created by a black hole feeding on matter.
How fast and which direction a black hole spins determines a lot about how its accretion disk, shadow, and relativistic jets will look. This animation simulates one type of spin...
...And this one another spin, leading to a different-looking accretion disk and jets.
If we were willing to build a telescope far more powerful than EHT, we might one day be able to record images like this — where a black hole's event horizon and rotating accretion disk are extremely clear.
This is a more fanciful version of the animation above, which boosts the brightness of potentially detectable wavelengths of light.
If humans ever saw a supermassive black hole up-close, it might look like this one from the sci-fi movie "Interstellar." However, the nearest one — called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star") — is located 26,000 light-years away at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
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