WASHINGTON — Scientists on Wednesday revealed the first image ever made of a black hole, depicting a fiery orange and black ring of gravity-twisted light swirling around the edge of the abyss.
The picture, assembled from data gathered by eight radio telescopes around the world, shows the hot, shadowy lip of a supermassive black hole, one of the light-sucking monsters of the universe theorized by Einstein more than a century ago and confirmed by observations for decades. It is along this edge that light bends around itself in a cosmic funhouse effect.
"We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole. Here it is," said Sheperd Doeleman of Harvard, leader of a team of about 200 scientists from 20 countries.
The image is one that will be carefully studied and the work that produced it will help scientists refine their understanding of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, said Angela Speck, director of astronomy at the University of Missouri.
"What is weird is that it looks exactly what we thought it would," Speck said.
University of Waterloo physicist Avery Broderick, a co-discoverer, declared: "Science fiction has become science fact."
In fact, Jessica Dempsey, a co-discoverer and deputy director of the East Asian Observatory in Hawaii, said the fiery circle reminded her of the flaming Eye of Sauron from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Unlike smaller black holes that come from collapsed stars, supermassive black holes are mysterious in origin. Situated at the center of most galaxies, including ours, they are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. This one's "event horizon" — the precipice, or point of no return, where light and matter begin to fall inexorably into the hole — is as big as our entire solar system.
Three years ago, scientists using an extraordinarily sensitive observing system heard the sound of two much smaller black holes merging to create a gravitational wave, as Einstein predicted. The new image, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and announced around the world, adds light to that sound.
Outside scientists suggested the achievement could be worthy of a Nobel Prize, just like the gravitational wave discovery.
The image helps confirm Einstein's general theory of relativity, Dempsey said. Einstein a century ago even predicted the symmetrical shape that scientists just found.
The black hole depicted is about 6 billion times the mass of our sun and is in a galaxy called M87 that is about 53 million light years from Earth. One light year is 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers.
There is a supermassive black hole at the center of Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way, that is only 25,000 light years away but the team could not get a good image of it, Speck said.
"It is not clear we understand exactly why," Speck said. "There may be too much going on."
While much of the matter around a black hole gets sucked into the vortex, never to be seen again, the new picture captures gas and dust that are lucky to be circling just far enough to be safe and to be seen millions of years later on Earth.
The measurements were taken at a wavelength the human eye cannot see, so the astronomers added color to the image, choosing gold and orange because the light and gas are so hot, heated to millions of degrees by the friction of gravity.
That gravity creates a funhouse effect where you can see light from both behind the black hole and behind you as the light curves and circles around the black hole.
The radio waves picked up by the telescopes are being emitted by atoms as their electrons are stripped away under the influence of the black hole, Speck said.
While black holes are massive, material stays in orbit around them in the same way the Earth remains in orbit around the sun or the moon about the Earth, she said. That is why black holes haven't pulled in all the matter in the universe.
"Typically, things are moving slightly faster than they need to be in order to stay in orbit," Speck said. "Around the black hole, most of the stuff is orbiting fast enough so it is staying in orbit. Things being sucked in don’t add sufficient mass to change that."
The project cost $50 million to $60 million, with $26 million of that coming from the National Science Foundation.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, who was not part of the discovery team but edits the journal where the research was published, pronounced the image "an amazing technical achievement" that "gives us a glimpse of gravity in its most extreme manifestation."
He added: "Pictures from computer simulations can be very pretty, but there's literally nothing like a picture of the real universe, however fuzzy and monochromatic."
"It's just seriously cool," said John Kormendy, a University of Texas astronomer who wasn't part of the discovery team. "To see the stuff going down the tubes, so to speak, to see it firsthand. The mystique of black holes in the community is very substantial. That mystique is going to be made more real."
Myth says a black hole would rip you apart, but scientists said that because of the particular forces exerted by an object this big, someone could fall into it and not be torn to pieces. But the person would never be heard from again.
Black holes are "like the walls of a prison. Once you cross it, you will never be able to get out and you will never be able to communicate," said astronomer Avi Loeb, who is director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard but was not involved in the discovery.
The telescope data was gathered two years ago, over four days when the weather had to be just right all around the world. Completing the image was an enormous undertaking, involving an international team of scientists, supercomputers, hundreds of terabytes of data.
"We've been hunting this for a long time," Dempsey said. "We've been getting closer and closer with better technology."