A New Page in History: The Discovery of the Supermassive Black Hole

The cosmos is one of the most mysterious places for humanity. Humans have discovered new atoms, self-driving automobiles, and even managed to travel across the Earth in less than a day. Space, however, is a region in which we have very little experience.

Discovery of the Supermassive Black Hole

On April 10th, 2019, astronomers made a historical discovery within the enshrouded area: they captured the first picture of a supermassive black hole. This picture not only confirmed the very existence of a black hole, but it also unveiled the ability of mankind’s technology—technology to reach and capture a moment millions of light-years away.

First Black Hole Predicted by Albert Einstein

The first prediction of a black hole was made in 1916 by the renowned scientist Albert Einstein in his proposal of the general theory of relativity. The term ‘black hole’ was first noted by John Wheeler, an American astronomer in 1967. Although the existence of a black hole was largely based on assumptions and theoretical propositions, humans defined black holes as “a celestial object that has a gravitational field so strong that light cannot escape.” Supermassive black holes are a special kind of black holes. They are usually a million to a billion times the mass of a standard black hole, and they are known to exist at the center of galaxies. Various theories exist regarding supermassive black holes, and the most intriguing one is that supermassive black holes might be the force that makes a galaxy orbit. Despite its enormous mass and power, however, supermassive black holes, like typical black holes, cannot be observed as they can absorb light.

How do we discover black holes?

Although black holes cannot be observed through telescopes that are made to detect electromagnetic radiations like x-rays, it can be detected by observing the effects a black hole has on the surrounding entities. An international team of scientists utilized this ability by focusing not directly on the black hole but the light that surrounds the black hole called the ‘event horizon.’ Event horizons are heated gasses that surround the black hole, which emit large amounts of radiation, ultimately enabling scientists to detect it. This technique is called EHT, Event Horizon Telescope.

VLBI: A New Technique to Observe Black Holes

However, because the supermassive black hole was too far away from Earth, it was not easy for them to find a telescope large enough to detect signals 53 million light-years away. This is where the technology VLBI, or Very Long Baseline Interferometry, took in. VLBI is a technique that connects different small telescopes into one, huge, synchronized telescope. It is no exaggeration to say that the scientists connected telescopes and used the Earth as one massive telescope.

2 Black Holes: Sagittarius A and M87

The scientists targeted two black holes for observation: Sagittarius A, the closest supermassive black hole, and M87, one of the most massive known black holes. Initially, because M87 was much far away than Sagittarius A, the scientists’ were mostly having hopes on the closer one. Nevertheless, luck won away. The dates that the scientists have chosen for observation had clear weather for all eight sites when observing M87, leading the telescopes to capture high-precision images of M87. After gathering the data and translating the data collected, the team of scientists was able to generate a silhouette of M87’s event horizon.

The Mystery of the Supermassive Black Hole

When the photo was revealed to the public, it immediately caught attention. It was no surprise that people were drawn to the photo—black holes were something that was long considered unreachable. After all, who would have imagined capturing a moment billions of light-years away? Although astronomers have proven their ability to reach into the depth of space prior to M87, demonstrating the photo of a black hole has its significance in that it showcased how advanced technology humans hold. It broadened up the potential of furthering space exploration—potential to unveil the many mysteries the cosmos embraces.

Black hole eating up a star. Source: NASA laboratory

Works Cited

Bennett, Jay. “Astronomers Capture First-Ever Image of a Supermassive Black Hole.” Smithsonian Magazine, 10 Apr. 2019, Accessed 23 May 2020.

“Black Holes.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 May 2020.

“Black Holes.” NASA Science, Accessed 23 May 2020.

Lutz, Ota. “How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole.” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 19 Apr. 2019, Accessed 23 May 2020.

Redd, Nola Taylor. “What Are Black Holes?”, 11 July 2019, Accessed 23 May 2020.

“Supermassive Black Hole.” Cosmos, Accessed 23 May 2020.

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