The first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole has been unveiled.
The image, revealed by the Event Horizon Telescope, shows the black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a galaxy in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster. It resides 55 million light years from Earth and has a mass that's 6.5 billion times that of the Sun.
The image shows a fiery ring-like structure consisting of gas and dust around a dark central region, the black hole itself, which is technically unseeable.
Heino Falcke, chair of the EHT Science Council, said: "If immersed in a bright region, like a disc of glowing gas, we expect a black hole to create a dark region similar to a shadow -- something predicted by Einstein's general relativity that we've never seen before," he said.
“This shadow, caused by the gravitational bending and capture of light by the event horizon, reveals a lot about the nature of these fascinating objects and allowed us to measure the enormous mass of M87's black hole."
As no single telescope is powerful enough to catch an image of the black hole, the Event Horizon Telescope consists of a network of eight telescopes at high altitudes around the world, in California, Hawaii, Mexico, Arizona, Sierra Nevada, the French Alps, the Chilean Atacama Desert and Antarctica.
Together they form an Earth-sized virtual telescope with an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds – enough power to read a newspaper in New York from a Paris street.
Each telescope produced around 350 terabytes of data per day, which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives and flown to supercomputers in Massachusetts and Bonn, Germany.
Paul T.P. Ho, EHT board member, said: "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. Many of the features of the observed image match our theoretical understanding surprisingly well.”
Funding for the project was provided by the US National Science Foundation, the EU's European Research Council and funding agencies in East Asia. The National Science Foundation alone contributed more than $28 million over 20 years.
The breakthrough was announced in a series of six papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.