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The image of a black hole could unleash a new age in astronomy

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By Corey S. Powell

The first direct image of a black hole was revealed Wednesday that scientists around the world were almost dizzy when they finally got the chance to see one of the most mysterious objects in the universe.

"An unparalleled result," rejoiced Shep Doeleman, director of Event Horizon Telescope, the international team of scientists who created the image using a network of radio telescopes assembled into a single earth-size observatory.

"I can not imagine myself experiencing a telescope image of a black hole," said Jean-Pierre Luminet of the French National Center for Scientific Research, who created the first visualization of a black hole in 1

979. Yale astronomer Priya Natarajan was more succinct. "My first reaction when I saw the picture was: Wow!"

The remarkable snapshot shows a black hole of a monster located 55 million light-years from Earth in the neighboring galaxy M87. Pōwehi (pronounced poe-vay-hee), a word from Hawaiian mythology that means "beautified dark source of infinite creation," is 6.5 billion times as massive as the sun, and has a diameter of 24 billion miles. Its mass and powerful gravity cast a shadow against the bright, hot gas that swirls around it, creating a distinctive donut shape.

The Event Horizon Telescope project is the culmination of a century of speculation about black holes, collapsed masses, where gravity is so intense that neither light nor light can escape. Until now, scientists who wanted to understand these puzzles could study them only indirectly: testing theories with computer simulations or watching how the strong gravity of the black holes affects matter and the space around them. Now the objects are visible, almost tangibly real.

The first image of a black hole heralds a new era of physics. Now that they can directly observe these bizarre objects, experts expect an avalanche of new observations – and new cosmic discoveries.

Einstein Continues the Tests

One of the most striking things about the Pōwehi image is that it is very similar to the simulations of black holes created using computer models. These models are all based on Einstein's theory of general relativity and make the game an impressive confirmation of the ideas of the famous physicist.

"We were surprised how clear the signature was," Doeleman said in an email to NBC News MACH. "Einstein's theory of gravity predicts that we should see a ring of light, but that it has thrown us so clearly through the head." (A little irony: Einstein himself did not believe in black holes, arguing that this showed his equations that such objects were theoretically possible, "they do not exist in physical reality."

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