Everyone has seen black holes represented on television, or in educational science specials, but their composition and appearance have largely remained a mystery to the general public. Now, however, the first direct visual evidence of the existence of black holes has just been released by researchers. A massive black hole, encircled by a ring of light, was photographed in a galaxy called Messier 87, about 55 million light-years from Earth. Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, said in a news conference, “We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have taken a picture of a black hole.”

The black hole was captured by the EHT, and the project involved over 200 researchers working for more than a decade. Scientists used eight radio telescopes stationed around the world, all working together, to create an extremely powerful virtual telescope. Daniel Marrone, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, said, “The observations were a coordinated dance in which we simultaneously pointed our telescopes in a carefully planned sequence.” The array of telescopes collected 5,000 trillion bytes of data over two weeks, which ultimately produced the black hole images.

This particular black hole has a mass 6.5 billion times that of our sun, and researchers believe it may be the largest black hole viewable from Earth. Finally having a clear visual of a black hole is an important confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, in which he predicted that dense regions of space have such intense gravity that nothing would be able to escape them.

Black holes have an abyss so dark and a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape it. For their strange and powerful qualities, they have captured widespread public interest for years. According to France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, “Black holes have sparked imaginations for decades. They have exotic properties that are mysterious to us. Yet with more observations like this one, they are yielding their secrets.”

H/T: The New York Times

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