A historic feat has been accomplished by the Event Horizon Telescope which is an international network of radio telescopes. It’s an international collaboration whose support in the United States includes the National Science Foundation. It has been able to capture the first real image of a black hole and its shadow. It’s important to note that all earlier images of black holes were artificial renditions. This is the first time that an image of an actual black hole has been captured.
For those who are unaware, a black hole is an extremely dense object from which it is impossible for light to escape. It has a point of no return called the “event horizon.” Anything that comes within that point is consumed and never makes it out again since black holes have intensely strong gravity. Given its very nature, a black hole can’t be seen, but the hot disk of material that’s around it does shine brightly. It’s against this bright backdrop that the black hole appears to cast a shadow.
This impressive new image shows the shadow of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87. It’s an elliptical galaxy that’s around 55 million light years from Earth. The black hole is more than 6.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. It was only possible to capture the show with eight ground-based radio telescopes across the globe. They operated together as if they were one telescope the size of our entire planet.
“Years ago, we thought we would have to build a very large space telescope to image a black hole. By getting radio telescopes around the world to work in concert like one instrument, the EHT team achieved this, decades ahead of time,” explained Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division at NASA.
Multiple NASA spacecraft were part of a large effort to complement the EHT findings by using different wavelengths of light. Astronomers used the data from NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR satellites to measure the X-ray brightness of M87’s jet. It was a huge undertaking to get so many different telescopes on the ground and in space to all look at the same celestial object but it has worked out beautifully in the end.