Scientists Have Captured The First Image Of An Actual Black Hole

One of the things we don't often appreciate when we're complaining about social media is how it gives us a front seat to history. Heck, in some cases, like the Arab Spring, you could make an argument that social media even caused history.

Still, it's amazing to share in huge events in real time, like we got to do with this huge announcement from the Event Horizon Telescope team.

History has been made after astronomers revealed the first-ever picture of a black hole.

Until now, all we've had to go on were artistic representations based on theories and calculations. Of course, black holes are tricky things to get images of. They're so massive and dense and contain such intense gravity that neither light nor matter can escape them, so they should be unseeable.

So, the black hole in the image is really only visible because of what's around it.

Wikimedia Commons | NASA/JPL-Caltech

The bright orange ring circling the black hole is called the accretion disc, and so the image is also the first time we've seen one of those.

An accretion disc is a mass of gas and particles that swirls around a black hole, being heated to billions of degrees and traveling near the speed of light before being sucked in.

The simulated black hole most of us are most likely familiar with is the one seen in "Interstellar."

The filmmakers and the digital artists behind that simulation did their homework and enlisted Caltech's Kip Thorne to create as "realistic" a black hole and accretion disk as they could without making it too confusing. After all, we're talking about some of the least understood objects in the universe.

It looks like Thorna and the Interstellar team did a great job, but again, a simulation is not a picture.

To get the groundbreaking image, astronomers had to use a network of eight telescopes stationed around the globe.

The network, joining observatories in Hawaii, Mexico, Arizona, the Spanish Sierra Nevada, Chile, and even Antarctica, amounted to an Earth-sized telescope powerful enough that, in theory, you could use it to read a newspaper in New York while sitting in Paris. In the case of examining this black hole, it's been likened to looking at an orange on the surface of the Moon.

All eight telescopes had to point at the same patch of sky at the same time, which they did in April of 2017.

Conditions turned out to be perfect, and in that night, the network gathered more data than the Large Hadron Collider produces in a year, all of which had to be managed by highly specialized supercomputers at MIT and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

It's all pretty mind-boggling, so it's little wonder that more than 200 scientists were involved in the Event Horizon Telescope that produced the image we're only seeing two years later.

Twitter | @ehtelescope

And really, it's the culmination of decades of research and theoretical work going all the way back to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. "We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago," said EHT project director Sheperd S. Doeleman.

Right in the middle of all of that was MIT's Dr. Katie Bouman, seen here with stacks of hard drives full of data.

Twitter | @MIT_CSAIL

She explained the ridiculously complicated prospect of taking a picture of a black hole in a 2016 TED Talk (below). She also wrote the algorithm used to capture the image.

The black hole in question is in the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, about 55 million light years from Earth, and it's wider than our solar system.

NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen

Astronomers have known the supermassive black hole was at the middle of Messier 87 for many years. They just couldn't see it until now. It's a staggering accomplishment.

"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," Doeleman said.

The other exciting thing is that there's more to come.

Back in April 2017, the telescope network wasn't just pointed at Messier 87. The scientists also pointed it at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy to get an image of the black hole there. The EHT team is still working on producing that image.

h/t The Guardian