Astronomers believe they have captured the first image of a black hole

13 Apr 2017

Abstract image of a black hole. Image: u3d/Shutterstock

Over decades of trying, astronomers have pulled out all the stops to photograph a black hole and now, they may have done just that.

While there is no doubt within the scientific community about the existence of black holes, our only confirmation of their existence is based on their effects on the surrounding matter of the cosmos.

Since the discovery of Cygnus X-1 in 1971 – the first object to be called a black hole – astronomers have attempted time and time again to capture an image, with no luck.

Two supermassive black holes involved

Over the past year, various teams have been working overtime to use machine learning and big data in the hope of generating the first photograph.

Now, an international team of astronomers believes that after many, many attempts, science will soon have the first image of a cosmic matter vacuum.

According to National Geographic, the team ran five nights of observations from a series of telescopes referred to as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which zoomed in on two supermassive black holes.

The first supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A, lies in the centre of the Milky Way with a mass of 1m suns, while the second can be found in the centre of a neighbouring galaxy called M87, which is 1,500 times heavier than the first.

With the information from the observations now gathered, terabytes of data equivalent to 1,024 hard drives will now be sent to the EHT’s processing centres at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory.

However, this will be no easy task. Among the eight observatories used for this mission, one is based in the frozen tundra of Antarctica and won’t be able to send its hard drives until the end of October.

Sagittarius A image

X-ray close-up image of the Sagittarius A supermassive black hole. Image: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

An anxious few months

Once all the data is gathered, the timestamped signals can be assembled with great care to retrieve the precise measurements of the black hole in order to create an image.

Speaking to National Geographic, Shep Doeleman, director of the EHT, said: “We’re trying to make coherent a network the size of the globe, which is incredible when you think about it.”

It will be an anxious few months until all of the data can be gathered for assembly but, when it is, it could represent one of the greatest achievements in astronomy.

“Even if the first images are still crappy and washed out, we can already test, for the first time, some basic predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity in the extreme environment of a black hole,” said Heino Falcke, a radio astronomer involved in the research.

“Over the next 10 to 50 years, we should even be able to make razor-sharp images as we extend the network into Africa and, ultimately, into space.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic