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How scientists took the first picture of a black hole

Science News reports:

Black holes are extremely camera shy. Supermassive black holes, ensconced in the centers of galaxies, make themselves visible by spewing bright jets of charged particles or by flinging away or ripping up nearby stars. Up close, these behemoths are surrounded by glowing accretion disks of infalling material. But because a black hole’s extreme gravity prevents light from escaping, the dark hearts of these cosmic heavy hitters remain entirely invisible.

Luckily, there’s a way to “see” a black hole without peering into the abyss itself. Telescopes can look instead for the silhouette of a black hole’s event horizon — the perimeter inside which nothing can be seen or escape — against its accretion disk. That’s what the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, did in April 2017, collecting data that has now yielded the first image of a supermassive black hole, the one inside the galaxy M87.

“There is nothing better than having an image,” says Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb. Though scientists have collected plenty of indirect evidence for black holes over the last half century, “seeing is believing.”

Creating that first-ever portrait of a black hole was tricky, though. Black holes take up a minuscule sliver of sky and, from Earth, appear very faint. The project of imaging M87’s black hole required observatories across the globe working in tandem as one virtual Earth-sized radio dish with sharper vision than any single observatory could achieve on its own.

Weighing in around 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun, the supermassive black hole inside M87 is no small fry. But viewed from 55 million light-years away on Earth, the black hole is only about 42 microarcseconds across on the sky. That’s smaller than an orange on the moon would appear to someone on Earth. Still, besides the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, Sagittarius A* or Sgr A* — the EHT’s other imaging target — M87’s black hole is the largest black hole silhouette on the sky.

Only a telescope with unprecedented resolution could pick out something so tiny. (For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope can distinguish objects only about as small as 50,000 microarcseconds.) A telescope’s resolution depends on its diameter: The bigger the dish, the clearer the view — and getting a crisp image of a supermassive black hole would require a planet-sized radio dish. [Continue reading…]

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