HOUSTON — The world's first image of a chaotic supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy doesn't portray a voracious cosmic destroyer but what astronomers Thursday called a “gentle giant" on a near-starvation diet.
The colorized image unveiled Thursday of the world’s first view of Sagittarius A* (star) is from an international consortium behind the Event Horizon Telescope, a collection of eight synchronized radio telescopes around the world. Getting a good image was a challenge; previous efforts found the black hole too jumpy.
The photo shows what astronomers call a supermassive black hole in the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. The image was made possible through eight radio telescopes positioned all over the world that work as one Earth-sized instrument.
Astronomers believe nearly all galaxies, including our own, have these giant black holes at their bustling and crowded center, where light and matter cannot escape, making it extremely hard to get images of them. Light gets bent and twisted around by gravity as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust.
Dr. Alexandra Tetarenko, a NASA Einstein Fellow who is part of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Texas Tech University, is part of the collaborative. She’s worked at James Clerk Maxwell Telescope In Hawaii.
“This is a lot of years of a lot of hard work,” Tetarenko said. “We’re looking, like, right down to the event horizon of these black holes ... so right where matter and light fall in and can never escape. Like, it’s absolutely amazing. We’re making an image of this. We’re seeing this incredibly extreme environment around these objects.”
The data collected through the telescopes has led researchers to create sound and video simulations of the black hole, which is 27,000 light-years away from Earth and is 4 million times more massive than the sun.
“We now have the first Event Horizon Telescope group at the University of Texas at San Antonio,” Dr. Richard Anantua said.
Anantua and his team will use data collected through the Event Horizon Telescope Collaborative to advance science and study more about the black hole. The science will be used to take the image impacts of everyday applications for medical imaging and electronics.
Black holes gobble up galactic material. It's the equivalent of a person eating a single grain of rice over millions of years, another astronomer said. The Milky Way black hole is called Sagittarius A (with an asterisk denoting star). It's near the border of Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations and is 4 million times more massive than our sun.
“So I think that’s really the power of astronomy that we really need right now. You know, there’s so, so much conflict and bad things happening in the world,” Tetarenko said. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”
It's the second image of a black hole ever released. The first one, released by the same telescope group in 2019, is an image capturing a black hole in a more distant galaxy called Messier 87. The picture was from a galaxy 53 million light-years away that is 1,500 times bigger than the one in our galaxy. The Milky Way black hole is much closer, about 27,000 light-years away.