Scientists have photographed a black hole before, but now they’ve captured an image of the most important example: the one at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. Researchers using the Event Horizon Telescope have revealed the first image of Sagittarius A* (also known as Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the center of our home galaxy. The snapshot confirms both the presence of the black hole and provides more details of how these extreme space objects work.
Like the black hole seen inside M87, Sgr A* is deflecting all light around itself, which is why it looks so similar. However, they are far from identical beyond this. The hole in the Milky Way is more than 1,000 times smaller and less massive. That made it challenging to accurately visualize the gas swirling around the hole, as it orbits in minutes while the gas in M87 takes days or even weeks. And while the object is huge, 4 million times more massive than the Sun, M87’s counterpart is billions of times more massive.
The team needed the Event Horizon Telescope’s network of radio observatories to produce the images over the course of several nights. They developed new imaging tools and used a combination of supercomputing power (to analyze and combine data) and black hole simulations to help compare their findings. The project took five years to complete, including 100 million hours of supercomputer time at the US National Science Foundation.
The image finally helps humanity see the center of the galaxy, which is about 27,000 light-years away. It should also help study black holes in general: astronomers can now compare images of two different black holes to refine their models of how these supermassive examples behave. Better understanding of the behavior of gases could shape understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. The light ring data also aligned well with predictions based on the General Theory of Relativity.
You can expect more data in the future. The EHT continues to expand and conducted its largest observing effort to date in March. Scientists expect more detailed images and videos of Sgr A* and other black holes in the “near future,” according to the NSF. All in all, images of black holes could be relatively common before too long.
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