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First image ever of the supermassive black hole at the center of Milky Way

The massive black hole at the center of our galaxy is about 26,000 light-years from Earth, and it appears the size of a doughnut in the sky.

First picture of the black hole in Milkey Way
First picture of the black hole in the Milkey Way by EHT COLLABORATION

Today, astronomers released the first photograph of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This study gives conclusive proof that the object is, in fact, a black hole and sheds light on the inner workings of these enormous objects, which are believed to dwell at the center of most galaxies.

The black hole is about 26,000 light-years from Earth, and it appears about the size of a doughnut on the Moon in the sky.

The results of the five years study by EHT, which comprises more than 300 researchers from 80 institutes throughout the world, were published in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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The photograph provides a long-awaited peek at the massive object at the center of our galaxy. Previously, scientists have observed stars orbiting something invisible, compact, and incredibly huge at the center of the Milky Way. This photograph demonstrates that this object, known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*, pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), is a black hole.

Even though we cannot see the black hole itself because of its total darkness, blazing gas around it displays a telltale signature: a dark center region (called a shadow) encircled by a light ring-like structure. The new image reveals light deflected by the black hole’s tremendous gravity, which is four million times more massive than our Sun.

“We were astounded by how closely the size of the ring matched expectations from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity,” said EHT Project Scientist Geoffrey Bower of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taipei.

“These findings have substantially increased our understanding of what occurs at the center of our galaxy and shed fresh light on how these enormous black holes interact with their environment.

Our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy with its Black Hole in the center.
Our solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy with its Black Hole in the center. Photo by NASA Illustration

The EHT accomplishment follows the 2019 publication of the first photograph of another supermassive black hole, designated M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy.

Even though our galaxy’s black hole is more than a thousand times smaller and less massive than M87*, the two black holes appear very similar. According to Sera Markoff, Co-Chair of the EHT Science Council and Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, “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 remarkably similar.” This indicates that General Relativity regulates these objects up close, and any deviations observed at further distances must be the result of variances in the material around black holes.

This accomplishment was substantially more tough than M87, despite the fact that Sgt. A is considerably closer to us. EHT scientist Chi-kwan (‘CK’) Chan from Steward Observatory and Department of Astronomy and the Data Science Institute at the University of Arizona, USA, explains: “The gas in the region of both Sgr A* and M87* flows at almost the speed of light. But although it takes days to weeks for gas to circle the much bigger M87, in the much smaller Sgr A it just takes minutes. This indicates that the brightness and pattern of the gas surrounding Sgr A* were rapidly changing while the EHT Collaboration observed it, similar to trying to capture a clear image of a dog chasing its tail.

To account for the gas flow near Sgr A, the researchers had to design complex new instruments. While M87 was a simpler, more stable target with essentially identical pictures, this was not the case with Sgt. A. The image of the Sgr A black hole is an average of the several photographs retrieved by the researchers, revealing for the first time the massive object at the center of our galaxy.

EHT scientist Keiichi Asada from Academia Sinica’s Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taipei stated, “Now we can analyze the differences between these two supermassive black holes to acquire crucial new insight into how this important process works.” “Now that we have photographs of two black holes — one at the big end and one at the tiny end of supermassive black holes in the Universe — we can investigate the behavior of gravity in these extreme conditions more thoroughly than ever before.”



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