By SETH BORENSTEIN AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, depicting a fiery orange and black ring of gravity-twisted light swirling around the edge of the abyss.
Assembling data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, astronomers captured a picture of the hot, shadowy lip of a supermassive black hole, the light-sucking monsters of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations for decades. It is along this edge that light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole. Here it is,” said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard.
University of Waterloo physicist Avery Broderick, a co-discoverer, declared: “Science fiction has become science fact.”
In fact, Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Unlike smaller black holes that come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin. Situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, they are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. This one’s “event horizon” — the precipice, or point of no return, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the hole — is as big as our entire solar system.
Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Albert Einstein predicted. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world, adds light to that sound.
Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize, just like the gravitational wave discovery.
While much of the matter around a black hole falls into a death spiral, never to be seen again, the new image captures gas and dust that is lucky to be circling just far enough to be safe and to be seen millions of years later on Earth.
Taken over four days when astronomers had “to have the perfect weather all across the world and literally all the stars had to align,” the image helps confirm Einstein’s general relativity theory, Dempsey said. Einstein a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found, she said.
The measurements were taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image, choosing gold and orange because the light is so hot.
What the image shows is gas heated to millions of degrees by the friction of ever-stronger gravity. That gravity creates a funhouse effect where you see light from both behind the black hole and behind you as the light curves and circles around the black hole itself.
The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $26 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, who was not part of the discovery team but edits the journal where the research was published, pronounced the image “an amazing technical achievement” that “gives us a glimpse of gravity in its most extreme manifestation.”
He added: “Pictures from computer simulations can be very pretty, but there’s literally nothing like a picture of the real universe, however fuzzy and monochromatic.”
“It’s just seriously cool,” said John Kormendy, a University of Texas astronomer who wasn’t part of the discovery team. “To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand. The mystique of black holes in the community is very substantial. That mystique is going to be made more real.”
Myth says a black hole would rip you apart, but scientists said this one is so big, and thus rotates so slowly, that someone could fall into it and not be torn to pieces. But the person would never be heard from again.
Black holes are “like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate,” said astronomer Avi Loeb, who is director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard but was not involved in the discovery.
The black hole depicted in the image is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun and is in a galaxy called M87 that is about 53 million light years from Earth. One light year is 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers.
The telescope data was gathered by the Event Horizon Telescope two years ago. Completing the image was an enormous undertaking, involving about 200 scientists, supercomputers and hundreds of terabytes of data delivered worldwide by plane.
“We’ve been hunting this for a long time,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been getting closer and closer with better technology.”
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By SETH BORENSTEIN AP Science Writer