"Earth-size telescope" captures first ever photograph of a black hole

"Earth-size telescope" captures first ever photograph of a black hole
Image: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

An extraordinary scientific feat has been achieved, as a revolutionary astrophotography (opens in new tab) technique has enabled astronomers to capture the first ever photograph of a black hole – a phenomenon that has, until now, been unseeable.

The image depicts the shadow of a supermassive black hole against a disc of glowing gas, 55 million light years away from Earth, at the center of the enormous Messier 87 galaxy in the Virgo cluster. 

"This is a huge day in astrophysics," said National Science Foundation (opens in new tab) director, France Córdova. "We're seeing the unseeable. Black holes have sparked imaginations for decades. They have exotic properties and are mysterious to us. Yet with more observations like this one they are yielding their secrets. 

"This is why NSF exists. We enable scientists and engineers to illuminate the unknown, to reveal the subtle and complex majesty of our universe." 

The Event Horizon Telescope co-ordinates 8 global radio telescopes to create a planet-sized observational array (image: NSF) 
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The image was made possible thanks to the revolutionary Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes across the world, including volcanoes in Hawaii and Mexico, mountains in Arizona and the Spanish Sierra Nevada, the Chilean Atacama Desert, and Antarctica.

The question is, with black holes being infamously invisible (being phenomena from which light cannot escape), how is it possible to see one even using a telescope the size of the Earth?

"If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow – something predicted by Einstein's general relativity that we've never seen before," explained Heino Falcke, chair of the EHT Science Council. 

"This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87's black hole."

BBC video

Identifying and imaging that shadow, which persisted over multiple independent Event Horizon Telescope observations, was central to the breakthrough. 

"Once we were sure we had imaged the shadow, we could compare our observations to extensive computer models that include the physics of warped space, superheated matter and strong magnetic fields," added Paul T.P. Ho, EHT Board member.

"Many of the features of the observed image match our theoretical understanding surprisingly well. This makes us confident about the interpretation of our observations, including our estimation of the black hole's mass."

"We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago," concluded Sheperd S Doeleman, EHT project director. "Breakthroughs in technology, connections between the world's best radio observatories, and innovative algorithms all came together to open an entirely new window on black holes and the event horizon."

Over 200 researchers were involved in realizing the Event Horizon Telescope breakthrough (image: NSF)
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Read more:

Astrophotography tools: the best camera, lenses and gear for shooting the night sky (opens in new tab)
Astrophotography: How-to guides, tips and videos on getting your best shots (opens in new tab)
Astrophotography from your backyard during lockdown (opens in new tab)
The best telescopes for astrophotography (opens in new tab)

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The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a magazine and web journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients as diverse as Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photographic and lighting tutorials, as well as industry analysis, news and rumors for publications such as Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab)Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and demonstrations at The Photography Show (opens in new tab). An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.