Before this week, the closest humans came to seeing a black hole was the music video for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” That’s no longer the case, thanks to an international team of researchers from the Event Horizon Telescope project. The first-ever image of a black hole, from the galaxy Messier 87, was released on Wednesday — it shows a “bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun,” according to the EHT’s official Twitter account.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. “We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole.” The significance of the image, which was taken in 2017 approximately 55 million light years from Earth, can’t be overstated:
The volume of data generated was unprecedented – in one night the EHT generated as much data as the Large Hadron Collider does in a year. This meant waiting for months for the South Pole data, which could only be shipped out at the end of Antarctic winter. The observations are giving scientists new insights into the weird environment close to black holes, where gravity is so fierce that reality as we know it is distorted beyond recognition.
The real-world significance of the image is for astronomists to parse through, though. (It took eight telescopes on five continents to take a photo of a black hole that is 6 billion times bigger than the Sun, which is too much for me to comprehend.) Everyone else is making the same (apt) joke about what it looks like: the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. Nothing terrifying about that!