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First-ever picture of a black hole unveiled

Using a telescope the size of the planet, astronomers have captured the first image of this space oddity. Here's why that matters. More than 50 million light-years away, in the heart of a giant elliptical galaxy called Messier 87; a gargantuan beast is devouring anything that strays too near. Stars, planets, gas, and dust—not even light escapes the monster's grasp once it crosses a threshold called the event horizon. Today, scientists unveiled an image of that object, a supermassive black hole containing the same mass as 6.5 billion suns. Resembling a circular void surrounded by a lopsided ring of light, this landmark image is the world's first glimpse of a black hole's silhouette, a picture that creeps right up to the inescapable edge of the black hole's maw.

The new image is the stunning achievement of the Event Horizon Telescope project, a global collaboration of more than 200 scientists using an array of observatories scattered around the world, from Hawaii to the South Pole. Combined, this array acts like a telescope the size of Earth, and it was able to collect more than a petabyte of data while staring at M87's black hole in April 2017. It then took two years for scientists to assemble the mugshot.

Before now, humans could only see indirect evidence that black holes even existed by looking for stars that seemed to orbit bizarre objects, by capturing radiation from the superheated matter swirling into them, or by seeing the extremely energetic jets of particles launched from their tumultuous environments.

One of the chief takeaways is a more direct calculation of the black hole's mass, which tracks closely with estimates derived from the motion of orbiting stars. The data also offer some hints about how some supermassive black holes manage to unleash gargantuan jets of particles traveling at near light-speed.


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