black hole

Image supplied

Astronomers mark first anniversary of historic black hole photo

Research continues into one of space’s most mysterious objects. Gigantic black hole explosion is among the latest findings.

black hole

Image supplied

This month marks the first anniversary of one of the most epic advances in space science in recent times. It was in April 2019 that a collaboration of astronomers were able to capture the first-ever photograph of a black hole.

Black holes are regions of space where a great amount of matter is packed into a very small area — think of a star 10 times more massive than the sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of a large city. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.

One of the most mysterious objects in the cosmos, their existence and basic characteristics have long been known, but it was only last year that an image of a black hole could be captured for all humanity to see.

The photo was of a black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87 which, according to NASA, is located 54 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Virgo. To give some perspective to that distance, one light year is about 9 trillion km (a 9 with 12 zeros behind it).

The photo shows a bright ring with a dark, central spot. That ring is a bright disk of gas orbiting the supermassive black hole. The dark spot in the middle is the black hole’s shadow, as no light can escape from it.

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The image of the black hole in M87 was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, is a multinational research project set up specifically to capture images of black holes.

During a webcast with journalists this month to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the landmark image, the collaboration’s founding director, Shep Doeleman, said he believed it was “just the beginning” and that “discovery is going to keep rolling on”.

According to the website, photographing a black hole is much more involved than just pointing and shooting. The Event Horizon Telescope combines data from eight radio telescopes around the world, which are linked to form a virtual megascope (giant telescope) the size of earth.

The team devises algorithms to make sense of all this information coming from the telescopes, integrating it to generate an image depicting the black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return beyond which nothing can escape.

More research around black holes reveals unimaginable explosion

Black holes will continue to be the focus of much research by many scientists around the world for decades to come.

In February 2020, for example, another collaboration of astronomers reported that they had detected the biggest cosmic explosion ever recorded. The eruption is thought to have originated at a supermassive black hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, which is about 390 million light years from Earth.

The explosion was so powerful that it created a dent the size of 15 Milky Way galaxies in the surrounding space. To give that perspective, the Milky Way is earth’s home galaxy and has a diameter of almost 53,000 light years.

Simona Giacintucci, of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, the lead author of the study, described the blast as the space version of the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, which ripped off the top of the volcano.

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