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The Black Hole in the Middle of our Galaxy Looks like This

It took hundreds of researchers and many telescopes to capture an image of the black hole at the middle of our Milky Way.

The first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*, was just released by astronomers. Technically, black holes are unseeable. They trap all light that falls in. That's why photographing one is sort of a paradox. This is actually a picture of the black hole's shadow—a dark circular silhouette set against the glowing matter surrounding the black hole.

The astronomers captured the image using a worldwide network of radio observatories called the Event Horizon Telescope, or the EHT.

The EHT uses a method called Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or VLBI. Basically this means that radio observatories around the world combine into a single virtual Earth-sized telescope.

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It's literally the highest resolution technique in all of astronomy. In April 2017, astronomers spent nights pointing these telescopes in unison at Sagittarius A* and other supermassive black holes in other galaxies.

That's when they got the famous picture of the black hole at the center of the galaxy M87, which they released in 2019. M87 is 55 million light years away from us and contains the mass of six and a half billion suns.

That's a lot.

Our black hole, Sagittarius A*, is much smaller but much closer. It's the size of Mercury's orbit around our sun and 26,000 light years from Earth. Because Sagittarius A* is smaller than M87, the shredded matter orbiting it circles it much faster. That means the appearance of the black hole changes constantly.

That's also why it's taken years to extract a clear image of Sagittarius A* from the petabytes of data collected during the 2017 observing run.

Think of it like taking a long exposure photograph of a dancer. Because the black hole changes more quickly, it's more difficult to photograph. The astronomers say that in the future, as they add more observatories to the EHT, they'll even be able to make movies of Sagittarius A*.

What would that look like? Videos of matter circling the drain before falling into the abyss.

Seth Fletcher is chief features editor at Â鶹´«Ă˝AV. His book Einstein's Shadow (Ecco, 2018), on the Event Horizon Telescope and the quest to take the first picture of a black hole, was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine and named a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. His book Bottled Lightning (2011) was the first definitive account of the invention of the lithium-ion battery and the 21st century rebirth of the electric car. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times op-ed page, Popular Science, Fortune, Men's Journal, Outside and other publications. His television and radio appearances have included CBS's Face the Nation, NPR's Fresh Air, the BBC World Service, and NPR's Morning Edition, Science Friday, Marketplace and The Takeaway. He has a master's degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from the University of Missouri.
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Jason Drakeford is a documentary filmmaker, video journalist and educator telling true, impactful stories with motion graphics and cinematic visuals.
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Tulika Bose is senior multimedia editor at Â鶹´«Ă˝AV.
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Jeff DelViscio is currently Chief Multimedia Editor/Executive Producer at Â鶹´«Ă˝AV. He is former director of multimedia at STAT, where he oversaw all visual, audio and interactive journalism. Before that, he spent over eight years at the New York Times, where he worked on five different desks across the paper. He holds dual master's degrees from Columbia in journalism and in earth and environmental sciences. He has worked aboard oceanographic research vessels and tracked money and politics in science from Washington, D.C. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT in 2018. His work has won numerous awards, including two News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
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