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Snapshot of the black hole

Judith Hartl
April 10, 2019

At six simultaneous press conferences around the world, researchers presented the very first real photo of a black hole. This is nothing less than a new era for science.

Erstes Bild eines Schwarzen Lochs (picture-alliance/dpa/Event Horizon Telescope (EHT))
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)

Here it is! The very first picture of a black hole. At six press conferences simultaneously — in Brussels, Washington, Taipei, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Santiago, Chile — researchers presented the remarkable photo: a dark circle with a flaming orange ring of light.

The researchers couldn't do this with a telescope. A telescope of this size would have to be as large as Earth. Because this is impossible, the researchers came up with a trick. They connected eight strong radio telescopes around the globe to simulate a giant telescope. Since 2017, they have collected data on data, packed it together, and proved with a picture what Albert Einstein had already calculated 100 years ago: that there must be something with such a mass that it attracts, swallows and distracts from its orbit anything close to it.

This photo, presented by researchers from the international research project Event Horizon Telescope, is groundbreaking. A new era, as Carlos Moedas, the EU's research commissioner, put it in Brussels. Black holes — black, dark, and invisible — have such a large mass that they swallow anything that approaches them. They even swallow their own light, so they are not visible. The gravity of black holes is unimaginably great.

Read more: Scientists find new black holes in Milky Way

Why do researchers know that black holes exist?

Black holes have no surface like planets or stars. Rather, they are areas in space. They have huge 'mouths,' waiting to devour everything that comes too close to them. They divert stars, nebulae and light from their orbit, pushing them, squeezing them, pulling all matter towards them, resulting in them orbiting the black abyss like whirlpools. These distractions can be measured by researchers. They know that there must be something enormous, something of gigantic power, doing its work.

How are black holes formed?

When a massive star dies, it explodes. Researchers call this a supernova. The star repels its outer layers while the rest collapses, leaving behind a relatively small black hole that no longer lets any light escape due to its mega-mass.

Black holes can also occur when two stars collide and then unite. If the mass is particularly large, this new star can collapse and become a black hole.

And then there are supermassive black holes. They can have millions or billions of times the mass of our sun. They are at the center of most galaxies, including our Milky Way. Researchers do not yet know how they were formed. They suspect that several black holes may have fused there.

Read more: Six things you need to know about gravitational waves

Why are black holes so important?

Without the power of black holes, our universe would probably look quite different. It could even be that galaxies can only be formed by black holes.

Which black hole is pictured here?

That's the supermassive black hole in the giant galaxy M87, in the constellation Virgo. It is about 55 million light years away from Earth.

Its mass is 6.6 billion times larger than the sun's. Since 2017, an international research team has observed and measured it intensely from locations in Hawaii, Arizona, Spain, Mexico, Chile and the South Pole. 

Another black hole that the researchers have in mind is Sagittarus A, a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way. Sagittarus A is 26,000 light years away from Earth and over four million times more massive than our sun.