Astronomers Found The ‘Eye of Sauron’ In First Ever Image of Black Hole

Published on April 10, 2019

If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, you are staring at real-world proof that Sauron from Tolkien’s Middle Earth exists. However, for those of you who aren’t on a quest to destroy the One Ring, you are looking at a huge milestone in astronomy—the world’s first visual proof that a black hole exists, provided by The Event Horizon Telescope.

After years of relying upon computer-generated imagery, which you’re probably used to from the average classroom textbook or documentary, scientists have actually utilized “The Event Horizon Telescope” to capture the first real image of a black hole.

The snapshot of the black hole in the Messier 87 galaxy (M87), a distant galaxy only 55 million light years away. The image shows the “shadow” creates as the event horizon bends and sucks in light, also confirming the supermassive weight the hole gives off—40 billion kilometers, a mass 6.5 billion times that of our Sun, and 3 million times the size of the Earth.

An “event horizon” is a region of space beyond the black hole in which the escape velocity is equal to the speed of light, making it impossible for anything, including light and sound to escape.

What Is A ‘Black Hole’?

Unless you’ve lived in your own black hole of sorts, all pun intended, it’s important to understand the global significance of this new observation.

A ‘black hole’ is a region of space from which nothing, not even light, can escape. Despite its name, a black hole isn’t “empty” so to speak, but rather, consists of such enormous amounts of matter which is densely packed into a small area, giving it the immense gravitation. This point of no return is where it becomes impossible to escape the black hole’s gravitational effects.

So, What Are We Looking At?

Credit: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et. al

The image itself, shows a central dark region, encapsulated by a ring of light that looks brighter on one side.

If there’s one thing to take away from this discovery, it’s that this is a major milestone in the field of astronomy. Up and until now, we’ve only ever relied upon computer-generated imagery to gain a better understanding of what a black hole is and what it may look like.

While it may seem somewhat fuzzy, this image supports what the theory of general relativity has predicted for decades—that black holes do in fact exist. This photo is now the world’s first direct visual evidence of this notion.

We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Sheperd Doeleman, Director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. “We have seen and taken a picture of a black hole.”

How Did Scientists Find the ‘Eye of Sauron?’

This experiment, originally proposed by Professor Heino Falcke, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, has been in the works since April 2017.

#1 –Meet “The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration” (EHT)

To generate this magnificently beautiful image you see, scientists were part of a global collaboration, called “The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration,” or EHT.

Named for the event horizon, EHT is a global network of eight telescopes that captured this black hole with the assistance of more than 200 researchers.

#2—The 8 Telescopes

By combining the power of these eight radios, high-altitude telescopes, EHT was able to essentially create a virtual telescope around the same size as the Earth itself.

The high-altitude telescopes utilized included ALMA, APEX, the IRAM 30-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano, the Submillimeter Array, the Submillimeter Telescope, and the South Pole Telescope.

Once these images were taken, supercomputers at the Max Planck Institute and MIT’s Haystack Observatory had to combine “petabytes” of raw data from all eight telescopes.

The observations were a coordinated dance in which we simultaneously pointed out telescopes in a carefully planned dance in which we simultaneously pointed our telescopes in a carefully planned sequence,” said Daniel Marrone, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. “To make sure these observations were truly simultaneous, so that we could see the same wavefront of light as it landed on each telescope, we used extremely precise atomic clocks at each of the telescopes.”

In just over two weeks, the telescope array collected 5,000 trillion bytes of data, which was processed through supercomputers that allowed scientists to retrieve and process the images.

For more information about the recent discovery, details of the observation have been published in a series of six research papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

#3Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads

Easy now, we just hit a major milestone here.

In the future, the EHT will have a “substantially increased” sensitivity as the Greenland Telescope, IRAM NOEMA Observatory, and Kitt Peak Telescopes join the array.

At the end of the day, these images just confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity—that dense, compact regions of space would have such intense gravity, that nothing could escape them. But, if heated materials in the form of plasma surrounded the black hole and emit light, the event horizon could be visible.

Once we were sure we had imaged the shadow, we could compare our observations to extensive computer models that include the physics of warped space, superheated matter, and strong magnetic fields,” explained Paul T.P. Ho, EHT Board member and Director of the East Asian Observatory.

Black holes have sparked our interest in space for decades. Adding on to what National Science Foundation director, France Córdova emphasized, this is why these programs exist—these collaborations provide for scientists and engineers to bring to light the dark, and show us what we don’t know about the very large universe we play a role in.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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