Scientists revealed the first-ever glimpse of a super-massive black hole Wednesday, as the Event Horizon Telescope released the first results of its findings in a ‘ground-breaking’ discovery that opens up questions about conventional physics.
The results were presented simultaneously by researchers in Brussels, Santiago de Chile, Taipei, Tokyo and Washington. “This major discovery provides visual evidence for the existence of black holes and pushes the boundaries of modern science,” the European Commission in Brussels said in a statement.
The collaboration of scientists reveals what is called the “event horizon,” the boundary at the edge of a black hole where the gravitational pull is so strong that no conventional physical laws apply and nothing can escape. The image released on Wednesday shows the shadow of the hole at the center of glowing plasma.
Gates of Hell
In the picture we are “looking at a region we’ve never looked at before, a region we cannot imagine being there," said Heino Falcke, Professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at the Radboud University Nijmegen and chair of the EHT Science Council. "It feels like looking at the gates of hell, the end of space and time, the point of no-return."
The discovery opens up more questions for scientists to explore, including "some deep fundamental physics questions that still need to be solved," said Falcke. The two big theories that describe the universe -- quantum physics and general relativity -- break down at the edge of back holes, he said, and now "it becomes a real problem."
The existence of black holes, one of the more mysterious objects in the cosmos, had been universally accepted even though little is known about them. Black holes form from remnants of a large star that dies in a supernova explosion. Scientists estimate there could be as many as a billion black holes in the Milky Way, according to NASA.
The EHT’s pictures show the black hole at the center of Messier 87, a massive galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. This black hole resides 55 million light-years from earth and has a mass 6.5-billion times that of the sun, the commission said in its statement.
Scientists say they observed the source for four days, during which the size remained the same, allowing them to measure the contrast between the ring itself and the central darkness. The image also suggests that something - either the matter around it or the black hole itself - was rotating clockwise, astrophysicist Monika Moscibrodzka from Radboud University Nijmegen said.
Eight telescopes across the globe participated in the observations in 2017. They have been connected to create a virtual earth-sized telescope allowing it to “measure the size of the emission regions of the two super-massive black holes with the largest apparent event horizons,” the EHT says on its website. The telescopes are scattered across the world, from volcanoes in Hawaii to Atacama’s desert in Chile to Antarctica and Europe.
The researchers said they hoped the image of M87 would help them analyze another black hole, known as the Sagittarius A, which sits at the center of the Milky Way with a mass of around 4.3 million times that of the sun and located 25,000 light years from earth. The scientists said they focused their efforts on M87 first since the black hole moves a thousand times slower than the Sagittarius A, making it easier to capture.