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A photo of the black hole in the center of M87. Photo: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

For the first time in history, we know what a black hole looks like, specifically the supermassive black hole lurking in the center of a galaxy called Messier 87 (M87).

Why it matters: A new photo, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, represents humanity's first real look at a black hole, and it could fundamentally alter how we understand these objects and test even the most basic laws of physics.

"We have now seen what we thought was unseeable," EHT project director Sheperd Doeleman said during a press conference in Washington on Wednesday. "We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole."

The black hole in M87’s heart is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun and thought to be almost the size of our entire solar system, astrophysicist Sera Markoff said.

Details: The EHT is a group of radio observatories that stretch around the globe from the U.S. to Greenland and even the South Pole, creating a virtual telescope the size of Earth.

  • Those observatories worked in tandem with one another to look into the heart of M87, revealing the black hole in its center. But getting this photo wasn't easy.
  • Black holes are so dense that not even light can escape them, making it impossible to directly image the incredibly massive objects.
  • Instead, the EHT effectively revealed the shadow of a black hole illuminated by the matter on the edge of the object's event horizon — the area near the black hole known as the "point of no return," where the gravity is so great that nothing can escape.
  • The black hole revealed on Wednesday has a mass calculated to be 6.5 billion times that of the sun, scientists said.

The big picture: The photo shows that the black hole at the center of M87 “does indeed appear to have the definition feature of a black hole — the event horizon, the point of no return,” EHT scientist Avery Broderick said. The EHT photo also seems to, yet again, validate Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.

  • The image confirmed that Einstein's predictions about the size and shape of black holes are correct and "determined by gravity alone," Broderick added. "Today, general relativity has passed another crucial test."
  • "It has verified Einstein’s theory of gravity in the most extreme laboratory for it," Doeleman said.

The EHT observations are also helping scientists figure out how black holes generate huge jets of radiation that structure the galaxies around them, something they've only been able to simulate on supercomputers.

  • "We always thought that black holes were behind these structures, driving these engines, but we never knew," Markoff said.

How they did it: All of the radio telescopes working with the EHT used atomic clocks to sync up observations of the black hole. But there was too much data to send over the internet. Instead, the team had to ship the data by mail to one facility where it could be processed by a supercomputer.

What's next? Eventually, the EHT collaboration hopes that they'll be able to launch a radio telescope to space, allowing them to get an even clearer picture of a black hole.

  • "World domination is not enough for us, we also want to go into space," Doeleman said.

The researchers are also working on taking a clear photo of the black hole in the center of the Milky Way.

What they're saying: "It did bring tears to my eyes. This is a really big deal," said National Science Foundation director France Córdova.

“There was a great sense of relief to see this but also surprise,” Doeleman said. “We saw something so true, we saw something that really had a ring to it. It was just astonishment and wonder, and I think that any scientist in any field would know that to see something for the first time."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan tributes flood in for "giant of the Senate" Bob Dole

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Sen. Bob Dole at an event put on by the World Food Program at which he was awarded the first “McGovern-Dole Leadership Award” in December 2013. Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Republican and Democratic politicians, including former Senate colleagues, are sharing condolences and memories commemorating the life of Bob Dole, who passed away at 98 on Sunday morning.

The big picture: Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, was the longest-serving Republican leader in the Senate until 2018, when current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surpassed his record.