Scientists reveal the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy

Scientists have photographed a black hole before, but now they’ve captured an image of the most prominent example – the one at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. Researchers using the Event Horizon Telescope have revealed the first image of Sagittarius A* (aka Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the center of our home galaxy. The snapshot both confirms the presence of the black hole and provides more details about how these extreme space objects work.

Like the black hole spotted inside M87, Sgr A* bends all light around it – hence its resemblance. However, they are far from identical beyond that. The hole in the Milky Way is more than 1,000 times smaller and less massive. This made it difficult to accurately visualize the gas whipping around the hole, as it orbits in minutes where the gas from the M87 takes days or even weeks. And while the object is huge at 4 million times more massive than the Sun, M87’s counterpart is billions of times more massive.

The team needed the Event Horizon Telescope’s network of radio observatories to produce images over several nights. They developed new imaging tools and used a mix of supercomputing power (to analyze and combine data) and black hole simulations to help compare their results. The project spanned five years, including 100 million supercomputer hours at the US National Science Foundation.

The image finally helps humanity see the center of the galaxy, which is about 27,000 light-years away. It should also help study black holes in general – astronomers can now compare images of two different black holes to refine their models of how these supermassive examples behave. Improving understanding of gas behavior could shape understanding of galaxy formation and evolution. The data from the light ring also matched predictions based on the theory of general relativity well.

You can expect more data in the future. The EHT continues to expand and conducted its largest observing effort to date in March. Scientists hope for both more detailed images and videos of Sgr A* and other black holes in the “near future”, according to the NSF. All told, black hole visuals could be relatively common before long.

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