The existence of black holes in space has been known to us for some time but until recently, we could only assume what one would look like as we have never before been able to photograph one. Albert Einstein published the theory of general relativity in 1915. He theorized that space and time were two separate aspects of spacetime and that spacetime is curved when gravity, matter, energy and momentum are present. Because of this theory, we had assumed that we knew what a black hole would look like. As it turns out, we were correct in our assumptions. 

Black holes are hard to see because their gravity is so intense that not even light can escape the black hole’s edge. This edge is known as the event horizon. An event horizon is the point of no return where escaping a black hole’s gravity is impossible. 

On April 10, 2019, the black hole was photographed 55 million light-years away from Earth in the galaxy Messier 87 using an Event Horizon Telescope. This is done by linking multiple telescopes around the world. Black holes are created when stars collapse in on themselves. At the centre of each black hole is a singularity or a point where the black hole’s density is infinitely squeezed into an infinitely small amount of space. 

Since photographing the actual black hole is impossible, astronomers had to look at its shadow. “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.” (Kettley).


BIGGEST TELESCOPE EVER  Telescopes across the world, including ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array in Chile (pictured), joined forces to create the Event Horizon Telescope, a virtual radio dish almost as big as Earth.

Because a black hole can’t be photographed directly, several telescopes were combined and orchestrated to get as much of the image as possible. Then computer algorithms were put in place to “fill in the blanks” with the likeliest of solutions. There are mathematical rules about how much of the picture can be filled in. An example is how bright the pixels can be compared to the pixels next to it. Given these guidelines, the software decides which data interpretations make the most sense.

Before 2017, the greatest challenge was making sure the algorithms weren’t biased to creating images of how we thought a black hole should look. For this reason, many trial runs were performed to give the likeliest possibility. Once confident, the EHT group (Event Horizon Telescope) began researching and attempting to photograph a black hole. It looks like their efforts paid off. (Temming)

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References:

Kettley, Sebastian. April 11, 2019. Black hole picture explained: What is a black hole and how did scientists take the photo? Retrieved from: Express.co.uk

Temming, Marie. April 10, 2019. How scientists took the first picture of a black hole. Retrieved from: Sciencenews.org


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