By: April Carson
The first picture of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole was made public Thursday, providing the first direct visual proof of "the enormous gentle one" that sits at the center of our galaxy.
The photo, which depicts a circular void encircled by a brilliant halo of luminous gas, is only the second picture ever taken of a black hole and is the first to provide an in-depth study of Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way's core.
It was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a global network of radio telescopes that capture images by linking together observations from multiple locations.
"This is an incredible achievement," said Sheperd Doeleman, EHT's director and an astrophysicist at Harvard University. "We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole."
"For decades, astronomers have wondered what lies at the heart of our galaxy, attracting stars into tight orbits due to its tremendous gravity," says Michael Johnson, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The first direct image that confirms Sagittarius A* is a black hole has now been made.
The Event Horizon Telescope, an international group of scientists led by an Oxford-based research organization known as the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, conducted the study. The collaboration includes more than 300 researchers from 80 different institutions all over the world.
The research was published Thursday in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, which is titled "Diverse Stellar Populations."
The Milky Way's black hole, Sagittarius A* (Sagittarius A for short), is 27,000 light-years distant and 4 million times more massive than the sun. It's thought that almost all galaxies have a black hole in their center, but since these behemoths do not emit light, astronomers can't get straightforward pictures of them.
Instead, they look for the effects that black holes have on surrounding stars and gas. In this case, the team looked at a star called S2, which is one of a few dozen stars orbiting Sagittarius A*.
S2 is only about 14 light-hours, or about half the distance from Earth to the sun, from the black hole. It's one of the closest stars to a black hole that we know of. Because it's so close, S2 experiences extreme gravitational forces. As it whips around the black hole every 16 years, we see its orbit process, or change shape. This effect is similar to how a spinning top wobbles as it slows down.
The black hole's telltale shadow, which was detected by astronomers around a glowing ring surrounding a cloaked center, was seen in the photo taken by Sagittarius A* (also known as Sgr A*) according to Feryal Özel, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Arizona and a member of the research team.
The study reveals how black holes "eat" by absorbing surrounding gas and distorting light with its tremendous gravity, according to NASA.
"The bright ring is a result of light escaping from the hot gas whirling around the black hole," Özel added. "Light that is too close to the black hole - which can be devoured by it - eventually hits its horizon and leaves only the dark emptiness in the middle."
Using eight radio telescopes worldwide, the image was created. The procedure entailed stitching together "pairs of telescopes that are quite distant," says Vincent Fish, a research scientist at the MIT Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts.
From various distances and orientations, radio telescopes enabled astronomers to get a closer look at Sagittarius A* and gather critical information that could be used to construct a more comprehensive picture. The technique is comparable to listening to a song on a piano with several missing keys, according on Katie Bouman, an associate professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology.
"We don't know when the missing keys should be hit, so there's an infinite number of different tunes that could be playing," she added. "Nevertheless, with enough operating keys, our brains can generally fill in the blanks to correctly identify the song."
The Event Horizon Telescope observations may assist researchers learn how black holes consume light and matter in their vicinity, which may help them better understand how supermassive black holes form and develop.
In 2019, the same Event Horizon Telescope team released the first picture of a black hole — one named M87* that is located in the center of Messier 87, which is more than 53 million light-years away.
The two black holes appear to be the same, despite the fact that Sagittarius A* is more than 1,000 times smaller and less massive than Messier 87's core black hole.
"It was incredible to be able to peep into the core of our galaxy for the first time," said Bouman.
"It's just really exciting," she added. "I mean, what is more fascinating than seeing our galaxy's black hole?"
The dark heart of our galaxy holds many mysteries, and scientists are just beginning to unravel them.
What we do know is that Sagittarius A* is incredibly dense, with a mass of 4 million times that of our sun crammed into an area no larger than our solar system.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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