Astronomers announced on Wednesday that at last they had captured an image of the unobservable: a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it.
For years, and for all the mounting scientific evidence, black holes have remained marooned in the imaginations of artists and the algorithms of splashy computer models of the kind used in Christopher Nolan’s outer-space epic “Interstellar.” Now they are more real than ever.
“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and director of the effort to capture the image, during a Wednesday news conference in Washington, D.C.
The image, of a lopsided ring of light surrounding a dark circle deep in the heart of a galaxy known as Messier 87, some 55 million light-years away from Earth, resembled the Eye of Sauron, a reminder yet again of the implacable power of nature. It is a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.
To capture the image, astronomers reached across intergalactic space to Messier 87, or M87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo. There, a black hole several billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light-years into space.
The image offered a final, ringing affirmation of an idea so disturbing that even Einstein, from whose equations black holes emerged, was loath to accept it. If too much matter is crammed into one place, the cumulative force of gravity becomes overwhelming, and the place becomes an eternal trap. Here, according to Einstein’s theory, matter, space and time come to an end and vanish like a dream.
On Wednesday morning that dark vision became a visceral reality. As far as the team of astronomers could ascertain, the shape of the shadow is circular, as Einstein’s theory predicts.
The results were announced simultaneously at news conferences in Washington, D.C., and five other places around the world, befitting an international collaboration involving 200 members, nine telescopes and six papers for the Astrophysical Journal Letters. When the image was put up on the screen in Washington, cheers and gasps, followed by applause, broke out in the room and throughout a universe of astrofans following the live-streamed event.
Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale, said that Einstein must be delighted. “His theory has just been stress-tested under conditions of extreme gravity, and looks to have held up.”
Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology, and who shared a Nobel Prize in 2017 for the discovery of gravitational waves from colliding black holes, wrote in an email: “It is wonderful to see the nearly circular shadow of the black hole. There can be no doubt this really is a black hole at the center of M87, with no signs of deviations from general relativity.”
Janna Levin, a cosmologist and professor at Barnard College in New York, said, “What a time to be alive.”