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What we learned from the first-ever photo of a black hole

A photo of the M87 galaxy.
A close-up of the core of the M87 galaxy with a black hole in its center. Photo: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen

On Thursday, an international team of scientists unveiled the first-ever photo taken of a black hole, giving humanity a glimpse of one of the most extreme objects in the universe.

The big picture: The photo, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, shows the shadow of Messier 87's (M87) supermassive black hole surrounded by a ring of light near the object's event horizon — the point at which nothing, not even light, can escape the gravitational pull of the black hole.

By the numbers:

  • M87 is located about 55 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo.
  • The black hole in the center of the galaxy is about 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun and is about the size of our solar system at 62 billion miles across.
  • The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is actually a group of eight radio telescopes that worked in tandem using precise atomic clocks to sync up observations and photograph the black hole.
  • More than 200 researchers were part of the EHT collaboration, and they released six scientific papers Wednesday detailing their observations.

Details: The new photo could reveal more than just the shadow of a black hole. The EHT image could actually help scientists figure out exactly how galaxies grow and form, powered by black holes feasting on matter in their centers.

  • The new photo also proves part of Einstein's general theory of relativity (again), showing that the structure of the black hole is what Einstein expected it to be. Interestingly, while a black hole is explained by his theories, Einstein was actually a skeptic of their existence.
  • The EHT also observed the huge black hole in the center of our Milky Way, though the team has yet to release photos of that particular black hole.
  • Files produced during observations of the black hole by the telescopes that form the EHT were too large to send over the internet, so they all had to be shipped by mail to a central location where a supercomputer could process them.

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