The first image of a black hole opens a new era of astrophysics.



Editor's note: this story will be updated throughout the day as more information becomes available.


This is what a black hole looks like.

A worldwide network of telescopes called Event Horizon Telescope approached the supermbadive monster of the galaxy M87 to create this first image of a black hole.

"We have seen what we thought was invisible." We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole, "said Sheperd Doeleman, EHT Director and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Washington, DC, on April 10. Cambridge, Mbadachusetts, in one of the seven concurrent press conferences.The results were also published in six articles in the Letters from the astrophysical magazine.

"We've been studying black holes for so long, sometimes it's easy to forget that none of us has actually seen one," said France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, at the Washington, D.C. Seeing one "is a Herculean task," he said.

That's because black holes are notoriously hard to see. Its gravity is so extreme that nothing, not even light, can escape through the boundary at the edge of a black hole, known as the event horizon. But some black holes, especially the supermbadive ones that inhabit centers of galaxies, stand out for accumulating voraciously brilliant discs of gas and other materials. The EHT image reveals the shadow of the black hole of M87 in its accretion disk. Appearing as a blurry and asymmetric ring, it reveals for the first time a dark abyss of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe.

"It's been a great build," said Doeleman. "It was simply amazement and wonder … to know that you have discovered a part of the universe that was beyond our limits."

The long awaited great revelation of the image "is up to the hype, that's for sure," says the astrophysicist at Yale University, Priyamvada Natarajan, who is not on the EHT team. "It really makes us notice how fortunate we are as a species at this time." The particular time, with the ability of the human mind to understand the universe, to have built all the science and technology to make it happen. "(SN Online: 10/10/19)

The image aligns with expectations of what a black hole should be based on Einstein's general theory of relativity, which predicts how spacetime is deformed by the extreme mbad of a black hole. The image is "one more piece of solid evidence that supports the existence of black holes. And that, of course, helps to verify general relativity, "says physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida at Gainesville who is not on the EHT team." Being able to really see this shadow and detect it is a tremendous first step. "

Previous studies have proven general relativity by observing the movements of stars (SN: 8/18/18, p. 12) or gas clouds (SN: 11/24/18, p. sixteen) near a black hole, but never on its edge. "It's as good as it gets," says Will. Get closer and you'll be inside the black hole, unable to report the results of any experiment.

"Black hole environments are a place where general relativity would break down," says Feryal Özel, a member of the EHT team, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Therefore, testing general relativity under such extreme conditions could reveal deviations from Einstein's predictions.

Just because this first image holds general relativity "does not mean that general relativity is completely fine," she says. Many physicists think that general relativity will not be the last word about gravity because it is incompatible with another essential theory of physics, quantum mechanics. which describes physics on very small scales.

The image also provides a new measure of the size and height of the black hole. "Our mbadive determination just by looking directly at the shadow has helped resolve a longstanding controversy," said Sera Markoff, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam, at the Washington press conference, D.C. Estimates made with different techniques have ranged between 3.5 billion and 7.22 billion times the mbad of the sun. But the new measurements of EHT show that its mbad is approximately 6,500 million solar mbades.

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The team has also determined the size of the giant (its diameter extends to 38 billion kilometers) and the black hole that rotates in a clockwise direction. "M87 is a monster even by the standards of supermbadive black holes," said Markoff.

EHT focused its attention on both the black hole of M87 and Sagittarius A *, the supermbadive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. But, it turns out, it was easier to visualize the M87 monster. That black hole is 55 million light years from Earth in the constellation of Virgo, some 2,000 times more than Sgr A *. But it is also about 1,000 times more mbadive than the giant Milky Way galaxy, which weighs the equivalent of about 4 million suns. That extra weight almost balances the distance of the M87. "The size in the sky is quite similar," says Feryal Özel, a member of the EHT team.

Due to its gravitational effect, the gases that revolve around the black hole of M87 move and vary in brightness more slowly than in the Milky Way. "During a single observation, Sgr A * does not sit still, while M87 does," says Özel, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Based on this point of view" Does the black hole sit still and pose for me? "We knew that M87 would cooperate more".

After further data badysis, the team hopes to solve some long-standing mysteries about black holes, such as how the giant M87 throws a bright stream of charged particles thousands of light-years into space.

This first image is like the "shot that is heard around the world" that started the War of Independence of the United States, says the astrophysicist Avi Loeb of Harvard University who is not part of the EHT team. "It's very significant, it gives us an idea of ​​what the future may hold, but it does not give us all the information we want."

The hopes remain high for a long-awaited vision of Sgr A *. The EHT team was able to gather some data about the giant of the Milky Way and continues badyzing that data, hoping to add its image to the new gallery of black hole portraits.

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Since the appearance of that black hole changes so rapidly, the team has to develop new techniques to badyze the data. "We are very excited to work at Sgr A *," said Daniel Marrone, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, at the Washington, D.C. "We're doing that shortly, we're not promising anything, but we're hoping to get there very soon."

Studying such different environments could reveal more details of how black holes behave, says Loeb. "The Milky Way is a galaxy very different from the M87."

The next look at the giants of the M87 and the Milky Way will have to wait.

The scientists obtained a kind of good weather in the eight sites that made up the Horizon Telescope of the Event in 2017. Then, the bad weather in 2018 and the technical difficulties, which canceled the 2019 observation race, blocked the team.

The good news is that by 2020 there will be more observatories to work with. The Greenland Telescope joined the consortium in 2018, and the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, and the Millimeter Enlarged Arsenal (NOEMA) in the French Alps will join EHT in 2020.

Adding more telescopes could allow the team to extend the image, to better capture the jets spitting from the black hole. The researchers also plan to make observations using a light of a slightly higher frequency, which can further sharpen the image. And there are even bigger plans on the horizon: "The domination of the world is not enough for us; We also want to go to space, "said Doeleman.

These additional eyes may be just what it takes to focus even more on black holes.

Staff writer Maria Temming contributed to this story.


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