Astronomers with the National Science Foundation on Thursday gave the people of Earth their first look at the supermassive black hole that sits at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy — an enormous maw dubbed “Sagittarius A” that seemingly confirms long-standing theories about the nature of our corner of the universe, and the nature of space and time at large.
Paradoxically (if not altogether unexpectedly) the image does not show the black hole itself, as the astronomical phenomena are fundamentally incapable of being captured visually due to their effect on light. Instead, the picture shows illuminated gasses forming a ring around a dark shadow at their center, where the hole consumes any and everything that transgresses its event horizon. Researchers estimate that Sagittarius A has a mass equivalent to 4 million of the stars at the center of Earth’s solar system, and sits some 27,000 lightyears away from us.
“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” Geoffrey Bower, an astronomer with the Event Horizon Telescope project that helped provide the image, said in a press release accompanying the image. “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.”
Thursday’s revelation comes just over three years since the Event Horizon Telescope project captured the first image of any black hole in the distant Messier 87 galaxy some 55 million light years from Earth. And despite the significant differences in both size and mass between the two, scientists have already leapt upon their striking commonalities as evidence that there are uniform rules of spacetime which even phenomenon like these can’t escape.
“We have two completely different types of galaxies and two very different black hole masses, but close to the edge of these black holes they look amazingly similar,” theoretical physics professor and EHT Science Council co-chair Sera Markoff explained. “This tells us that general relativity governs these objects up close, and any differences we see further away must be due to differences in the material that surrounds the black holes.”
According to the national science foundation, the image of Sagittarius A was the work of 300 researchers at 80 institutes who labored for five years to establish a linked network of eight radio telescopes around the planet to pierce the center of the Milky Way.