By Cailey Rizzo
April 10, 2019
Using the Event Horizon Telescope, scientists obtained an image of the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, outlined by emission from hot gas swirling around it under the influence of strong gravity near its event horizon.
Event Horizon Telescope/National Science Foundation

For the first time ever, we know what a black hole actually looks like.

On Wednesday, scientists at the National Science Foundation revealed the first photographs ever taken of a supermassive black hole and its shadow. Previously, all imagery of a black hole was done by artist renderings and it was considered one of the most mysterious objects in the universe.

"We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago," Event Horizon Telescope project director Sheperd S. Doeleman of the Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement. "Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world's best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes and the event horizon."

The black hole is called Sagittarius A* and is located in a galaxy called Messier 87. The supermassive black hole doesn’t get its name for nothing. Scientists have measured that it has a mass approximately 6.5 billion times that of our sun. 

The image was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a combined effort of eight ground-based radio telescopes and 200 scientists, spread across diverse locations like Hawaii, Mexico, Arizona, Spain, Chile and Antarctica. This collaboration creates a telescope roughly the same size as Earth itself. The images are of a resolution strong enough that someone sitting in Paris would be able to read a newspaper in New York.

As a refresher: black holes are basically giant amounts of matter squeezed into a tiny space. It is completely dark because its gravitational force is so strong, even light cannot escape. They warp space-time around them, creating a perfect loop of light so that if you stood at one end of the hole’s “event horizon,” you would be able to see the back of your own head, reported The Guardian.

"This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87's black hole,” Heino Falcke, chair of the EHT Science Council, said in a statement.

The photo is particularly exciting because, according to The Guardian, it proves Einstein’s theory of relativity (although, at the time of its proposition, Einstein himself was skeptical about the existence of black holes). Einstein believed that a dense region of space would have such intense gravitational pull that nothing would be able to escape them; however, material like plasma around the black hole would emit light and make the black hole’s event horizon visible. (Which is exactly what is visible in the photograph.)

While we now know how the border of a black hole appears, we still are unsure what happens inside them. “The black hole is not the event horizon, it’s something inside,” Ziri Younsi, who worked on EFT and is based at University College London, told The Guardian. “It could be something just inside the event horizon, an exotic object hovering just beneath the surface, or it could be a singularity at the centre … or a ring.”

Of course, as with any major scientific breakthrough, memes are already in full supply. One particularly strong trend is “Lord of the Rings” fans noting a black hole’s resemblance to the Eye of Sauron.

Regardless of how you interpret it, the photograph is indeed a gigantic moment in scientific history. “We have been studying black holes for so long that sometimes it’s easy to forget that none of us has seen one,” France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, said at the press conference on Wednesday. “This will leave an imprint on people’s memories.”