Astronomers on Thursday gave the world the first glimpse of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy – some 27,000 light years away from Earth.
The otherworldly image of the black hole – Sagittarius A* – is just the second such photo to ever be produced, coming three years after the international Event Horizon Telescope collaboration unveiled the first view of a black hole at the center of a far-distant galaxy.
“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” EHT scientist Geoffrey Bower said in a statement announcing the historic view of the gentle giant 4 million times as massive as the sun.
The “unprecedented” look at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, which contains at least 100 billion stars, has greatly improved astronomers’ understanding of how giant black holes interact with their surroundings, Bower said.
Since Sagittarius A* — pronounced “A star” — is roughly 27,000 light-years from Earth, the black hole appears to have the same size in the sky as a donut on the moon, Event Horizon Telescope officials said in a statement Thursday announcing the discovery.
In order to capture the image released Thursday, astronomers in 2012 created the Event Horizon Telescope system, a global network linking eight radio observatories across the world to create a single “Earth-sized” virtual telescope.
Feryal Özel — an astronomer at the University of Arizona, where researchers played akey role in capturing the new image — attended a National Science Foundation press conference in Washington to announce the discovery. She described it as the “first direct image of the gentle giant” in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Black holes, which trap light and matter at the center of nearly all galaxies, typically consume galactic material, but Özel said Sagittarius A* is apparently on a diet and “eating very little.”
Astronomers now have images of two black holes of vastly different sizes, allowing them to focus on how they operate. The new data gleaned from Thursday’s photo also gives researchers the ability to test theories and models of how gas behaves around supermassive black holes, according to the Event Horizon Telescope consortium.
The image released by the group in 2019 showed a supermassive black hole called M87* in the Messier 87 galaxy about 54 million light-years from Earth.
“Now we can study the differences between these two supermassive black holes to gain valuable new clues about how this important process works,” EHT researcher Keiichi Asada said. ““We have images for two black holes — one at the large end and one at the small end of supermassive black holes in the universe — so we can go a lot further in testing how gravity behaves in these extreme environments than ever before.”
A jubilant Özel, meanwhile, recalled the “beautiful” moment when the image was unveiled during one of several simultaneous news conferences around the globe.
“The wait is over,” she tweeted. “Meet the black hole at the center of our galaxy. #OurBlackHole”
With Post wires
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