The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of the galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from Earth, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.
To capture the image, astronomers reached across intergalactic space to Messier 87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo. There, a black hole several billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light-years into space.
Wow, what a couple of paragraphs!
“Einstein must be totally chuffed,” said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale. “His theory has just been stress-tested under conditions of extreme gravity, and looks to have held up.”
Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, and who shared a Nobel Prize in 2017 for the discovery of gravitational waves from colliding black holes, wrote in an email: “It is wonderful to see the nearly circular shadow of the black hole. There can be no doubt this really is a black hole at the center of M87, with no signs of deviations from general relativity.”
Janna Levin, a cosmologist and professor at Barnard College in New York, said, “What a time to be alive.”
That last phrase is often used these days as a joke. Here, it is not. Also, absolutely wild how they did this:
By combining data from radio telescopes as far apart as the South Pole, France, Chile and Hawaii, using a technique called very long baseline interferometry, Dr. Doeleman and his colleagues created a telescope as big as Earth itself, with the power to resolve details as small as an orange on the lunar surface.
It has taken a decade for the astronomers to learn how to use it, and to equip some antennas around the world to make observations that they were not built to make. In the end, Dr. Doeleman said, they had a telescope capable of reading the date on a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.
In April 2017, the network of eight telescopes, including the South Pole Telescope, synchronized by atomic clocks, stared at the two targets off and on for 10 days.
For two years, the Event Horizon team reduced and collated the results from their 2017 observations. The data — 5 petabyes, equivalent to a lifetime of selfies taken by 40,000 people, said Doug Marrone of the University of Arizona — were too voluminous to transmit over the internet. So they had to be placed on hard disks and flown back to M.I.T.’s Haystack Observatory, in Westford, Mass., and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, in Bonn, Germany.