Astronomers have been able to see a giant black hole in the center of the Milky Way, which should be hidden from view.
An international team of researchers released a snapshot of the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* on Thursday, using eight linked radio dishes from around the world that together can penetrate through murky dust in outer space. Sagittarius A* revealed itself in the form of a black shadow surrounded by the bright glow of the gas and debris swirling around its perimeter.
A photo shows a region in deep space reminiscent of a solar eclipse, with a dark circle wreathed in a red-orange fuzz of light. The image was colored so that people could see it.
Three years ago, depictions of a black hole were no longer limited to an artist's interpretation or a computer model. The object seen in the photo at the top of the story is the real deal, it's hundreds of scientists from 80 institutions around the globe working together to collect, process, and piece together fragments of radio data.
Tweet may have been deleted
The breakthrough was published in a journal. The National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was the location of a press conference hosted by the people from the event horizon telescope.
The image of Sagittarius A*, pronounced Sagittarius A-star, is a monumental achievement, the second time scientists have overcome the barrier of invisibility to glimpse a black hole. The black hole that resides at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy is an easier target to capture because it is so far away, at about 53 million light-years away. Astronomers say the black hole is as big as the solar system.
The South Pole Telescope is one of the radio dishes linked in the Event Horizon Telescope array to produce the black hole images. Credit: Daniel Michalik / National Science Foundation
Sagittarius A* is 27 million miles across, but it is not a pipsqueak. It's 4 million times bigger than the sun. Imagine that the sun has a mass equal to 333,000 Earths.
Sagittarius A* is proof that black holes are not science fiction. Prior to the first black hole photo, scientists inferred a hole's presence in space by detecting its impact on nearby stars and gas. Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking were two of the many people who paved the way for Thursday's revelation.
To collect the massive amounts of data needed to process the image, the event horizon telescope used a technique called very long baseline interferometry, which syncs up observatories around the world and takes advantage of Earth's rotation to form one virtual planet-sized telescope. According to the organization, the instruments were able to view the sky with sight on par with the strength needed to read a newspaper in New York from Paris.
Event Horizon Telescope director Sheperd Doeleman reveals the first photograph of a black hole during a news conference organized by the National Science Foundation at the National Press Club on April 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
At the time of the black hole announcement, the event horizon telescope team said they had attempted to create an image of the black hole, but they had not been able to get a clear picture. As one of the most studied black holes in the universe, it came as a disappointment to many who wanted to look at our own.
As one of the most studied supermassive black holes in the universe, that came as a disappointment to many astrophysicists who yearned to gaze at our galaxy's own navel.
There are black holes in outer space. A star dying in a supernova explosion is thought to be the cause of stellar black holes. The material of the star collapses onto itself.
The form of supermassive black holes, millions to billions of times more massive than the sun, is more mysterious than stellar black holes. Many people believe that these giants are at the center of the universe. Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations have supported the theory that black holes can start in the dusty cores of starburst galaxies, where new stars are rapidly churned out, but scientists are still chipping away at the problem.
Black holes are not like planets or stars. The event horizon is a point of no return. If anything swoops too close, it will fall in.
This is not a finished story. You can check back for updates.