Interestingly, the research which was conducted by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) project, an international participation involving about 200 scientists begun in 2012 to try to directly observe the immediate environment of a black hole and its announcement was made in simultaneous news conferences in Washington, Brussels, Santiago, Shanghai, Taipei and Tokyo respectively.
The image, as reliably learnt, was obtained using data collected in April 2017 from eight radio telescopes in six locations that essentially create a planet-sized observational dish.
The team’s observations strongly proved the theory of general relativity proposed in 1915 by Einstein, the celebrated theoretical physicist, to explain the laws of gravity and their relation to other natural forces.
According to astrophysicist Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Harvard & Smithsonian, “We have achieved something presumed to be impossible just a generation ago”.
Black holes, phenomenally dense and coming in various sizes, are extraordinarily difficult to observe by their very nature. A black hole’s event horizon is the point of no return beyond which anything – stars, planets, gas, dust and all forms of electromagnetic radiation – gets swallowed into oblivion.
The M87 black hole observed by the scientific team resides about 54 million light-years from Earth and boasts an almost-unimaginable mass of 6.5 billion times that of the sun. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).
“This is a huge day in astrophysics. We’re seeing the unseeable. It did bring tears to my eyes”, U.S. National Science Foundation Director, France Cordova submitted.
The existence of black holes was first predicted in 1916. Most galaxies are thought to have a supermassive black hole at their center.
Meanwhile, the fact that black holes do not allow light to escape makes viewing them difficult, thus the scientists looked for a ring of light – super-heated disrupted matter and radiation circling at tremendous speed at the edge of the event horizon – around a region of darkness representing the actual black hole. This is known as the black hole’s shadow or silhouette.
The scientists further confirmed that Einstein’s theory correctly predicted that the shape of the shadow would be almost a perfect circle. With M87, it deviated from perfect circularity by less than 10 percent.
Remarking, astrophysicist Dimitrios Psaltis of the University of Arizona, the EHT project scientist said, “we found literally the proverbial hole in the middle of this galaxy, and to me that is just stunning”.
Einstein’s theory also was validated by another major astrophysics achievement announced in 2016, the detection of gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime, arising from two black holes that smashed together.
“Science fiction has become science fact,” University of Arizona astronomy professor Daniel Marrone emphasized.
“The image has this exquisite beauty in its simplicity,” said another CfA astrophysicist Michael Johnson, the project’s imaging coordinator.
“It is just a fundamental statement about nature. It’s a really moving demonstration of just what humanity is capable of”, he added.
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