The Event Horizon Telescope has captured the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Astronomers released the image during a press event at the U.S. National Science Foundation in Washington D.C. on Thursday. Astronomers say this result provides overwhelming evidence that the object is indeed a black hole and yields valuable clues about the workings of such giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes.
Scientists had previously seen stars orbiting around something invisible, compact, and very massive at the center of the Milky Way. This strongly suggested that this object — known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*, pronounced “sadge-ay-star”) — is a black hole, and today’s image provides the first direct visual evidence of it.
Although we cannot see the black hole itself, because it is completely dark, glowing gas around it reveals a telltale signature: a dark central region (called a “shadow”) surrounded by a bright ring-like structure. The new view captures light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is four million times more massive than our Sun.
“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” said EHT Project Scientist Geoffrey Bower from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, Taipei. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.”
The breakthrough follows the EHT collaboration’s 2019 release of the first image of a black hole, called M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy.
What would happen if you found yourself near a black hole? According to NASA, If you happened to fly near a black hole, its extreme gravitational pull would increasingly slow down time and warp space. You’d be tugged ever closer, gradually joining an accretion disk of orbiting space material (stars, gases, dust, planets, + you?) spiraling inward toward the event horizon or “point of no return.” Once you crossed this boundary, gravity would overcome all chances of escape and you’d be super-stretched, or “spaghettified” as you plunged toward the singularity at the black hole’s center — an inconceivably small point with a monstrous mass where gravity and density theoretically approach infinity and space-time curves infinitely. In other words, you’d be gobbled up and annihilated in a place that utterly defies the laws of physics as we understand them.