In a coordinated press conference held around the world, researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a globe-spanning array consisting of eight ground-based radio telescopes, announced the first ever successful direct imaging of a supermassive black hole.

A black hole is a dense object with inconceivably strong gravity that consumes all particles and radiation it comes into contact with, including light. A region called the event horizon surrounds every black hole as its boundary, the point of no return where the immense gravity takes hold of anything entering. Due to the very nature of black holes, they appear invisible in the dark abyss of the Cosmos. A supermassive black hole is exactly what the name suggests, a super-sized variant of these mysterious objects. There remains a general scientific consensus that at the core of every galaxy rests a supermassive black hole holding everything together. The Milky Way’s is called Sagittarius A*, though it is not the subject of this recent groundbreaking achievement.

At the center of Messier 87, a galaxy within the Virgo galaxy cluster 55 million light-years away, a supermassive black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun holds sway over the elliptical galaxy. Humanity now possesses proof of this black hole’s existence, the first of its kind ever captured  by the Event Horizon Telescope.

The Astrophysical Journal Letters published a special issue containing the six paper series documenting this historic breakthrough. The 200 member team responsible for this remarkable photoshoot performed their research at eight facilities around the globe, utilizing a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VBLI), synchronizing several telescope facilities and using the rotation of the Earth to create a massive planet-sized telescope. The EHT observed M87’s center at a wavelength of 1.3mm while achieving an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds, the equivalent to “reading a newspaper in New York from a café in Paris.” The team collected data amounting in petabytes (1 petabyte = 1024 terabytes, or a million gigabytes), compiled by advanced supercomputers provided by Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory. 

The Event Horizon Telescope team represents an international effort encompassing the entire globe. The facility used to make this event possible include: ALMA, APEX, IRAM, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano, Submillimeter Array, Sub millimeter Telescope, and the South Pole Telescope. Credit: ESO/O. Furtak

The European Research Council and the European Southern Observatory provided research and support for this bold endeavor, the result building upon decades of European collaboration and mastery of millimeter astronomy.

NASA assisted the research with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory by measuring X-ray brightness of M87’s jets in an effort to better understand why particles gain such massive boosts of energy when in the proximity of black holes. The greatest mysteries remains that continues to puzzle physicist for over a century: what happens to matter when it falls into a black hole, and where does the energy go?

This achievement, thought to be impossible a mere generation ago, marks a new era of technological innovation and a testament to the progress of our civilization. The concept of syncing our most advanced scientific facilities, harnessing their combined power together to image invisible phenomenon offers this eager stargazer a shred of hope that this very method could apply to exoplanet hunters, and that one day my exoplanet posts will include real pictures of distant worlds, not these artistic visualizations, which don’t get me wrong they are very pretty…

This grand achievement by the Event Horizon Telescope stockpiled a trove of data, laying the foundation for many potentially ground breaking discoveries to come!

The Chandra X-ray Observatory close-up of the core of the M87 galaxy. Credits: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen