Scientists have imaged 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. 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 both confirms the presence of the black hole and provides more details on how these extreme space objects work.
Like the black hole discovered in M87, Sgr A* bends all light around it – hence the similarity. Beyond that, however, they are far from identical. The hole in the Milky Way is over 1,000 times smaller and less massive. This made it a challenge to accurately visualize the gas whipping around the hole, as it orbits in minutes where M87’s gas takes days or even weeks. And while the object is huge, at 4 million times the mass of the Sun, M87’s counterpart is billions of times larger.
The team needed the Event Horizon Telescope’s network of radio observatories to create the images over several nights. They developed new imaging tools and used a mix of supercomputing power (to analyze and combine data) and black hole simulations to better compare their results. The project took five years, including 100 million hours of supercomputer time at the US National Science Foundation.
The image is finally helping 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. The improved understanding of gas behavior could inform understanding of how galaxies form and evolve. The ring of light data also agreed well with predictions based on general relativity.
You can expect more dates in the future. The EHT continues to expand and in March conducted its largest observing effort to date. Scientists hope for more detailed images and videos of Sgr A* and other black holes in the “near future,” according to NSF. All in all, images of black holes could soon be relatively commonplace.
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