See a black hole for the first time in a historic image from the Event Horizon Telescope

Scientists have finally captured the first image of a black hole, a bottomless pit in the fabric of the universe from which not even light can escape. Black holes are perhaps the strangest things in the cosmos, until now hidden behind dust and gas and the blinding radiation from the matter caught in their gravitational grip and whirling violently around them.

The highly anticipated portrait, unveiled Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington and in news conferences in six other cities across the globe, shows an extraordinary, “supermassive” black hole at the center of Messier 87, a gigantic galaxy about 55 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo.

The image was produced by the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of 10 radio telescopes spread across the planet and functioning as if it were a single receiver, one tuned to high-frequency radio waves. It represents a technical triumph for the scientists involved, and inaugurates a new era in the study of black holes, galaxy formation, and the laws of physics under extreme conditions.

The M87 black hole appears as a dark shadow within a doughnut-like ring of hot, glowing material.

"You’re basically looking at a supermassive black hole that’s almost the size of our solar system,” or 38 billion kilometers in diameter, said Sera Markoff, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam who spoke at the Washington news conference.

Within the shadow in the image is the black hole’s event horizon — the point of no return, where the gravity becomes so extreme that nothing that enters can ever leave. At the center of the black hole, time and space become so curved upon themselves that the laws of physics break down completely.

The thrilling success of the observation was coupled with a twinge of disappointment, because the new image does not upend the scientific consensus about black holes. The distinctive doughnut shape of the black hole matches what theorists had expected. Significantly, the M87 black hole doesn’t show any sign of disobeying the physics equations of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Science is typically an incremental enterprise with relatively few drumroll-inciting press conferences. But this was exactly that. The mere announcement of the press conferences generated days of news stories. Somehow, the historic first image of a black hole was kept under wraps for months by the Event Horizon Telescope team. Like the Mueller Report, it never leaked.

At 9:07 a.m. EDT, Shep Doeleman, the Harvard astrophysicist who directed the project, took the podium at the press club in Washington and said, “Here it is.” The simple, bold, orange-hued image flashed on the big screen behind him. Simultaneously the image appeared on the project’s web site, and quickly went viral online, with the predictable parodies and expert commentary on how much it looked like the Eye of Sauron from “Lord of the Rings.”

Doeleman said after the news conference that about 400 people associated with the project had seen the image before Wednesday. Everyone understood how important it was to keep it secret and remain united, he said.

“You have 400 people who are essentially spies. Will not break under any torture,” he said.

Markoff said she and other scientists got their first look at an early image of the M87 black hole last summer, and although it generally matched what the computer models had predicted a black hole would look like, she was still in awe.

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