Astronomers reveal 3 things the historic black hole photo confirms about space


Humanity’s first image of a black hole.

The first-ever photo of a black hole was released on Wednesday, giving a physical form to an astronomical phenomenon that had previously only been hypothesized. Imaging a black hole for the first time was a major accomplishment — and an emotionally moving one for the scientists involved — but perhaps the most important part of this discovery isn’t what it revealed but what it confirmed.

In a series of six papers published Wednesday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, over 200 scientists involved in the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration describe how they collected enough light from the black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87 to reveal humanity’s first look at a black hole.

The image of the black hole is just one artifact of this immense project. Through the image, astronomers got their first close-up glimpse at an astronomical phenomenon whose existence was predicted a century ago, allowing them to test their previous theories against a new set of concrete data. The results, described below, could open up a new era of astrophysics.

It Fit the Predictions Perfectly

The image at the top of this article was created before scientists ever saw the M87 black hole, using mathematical predictions of how the black hole might look. The new image looks like a blurry version of the prediction, but as far as scientists are concerned, they might as well be the same.

“As far as I’m concerned, the most surprising thing about this image is that it’s not very surprising,” Avi Loeb, Ph.D., the founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, tells Inverse. A decade ago, Loeb, who was not involved in capturing the M87 image, helped devise a prediction of what the M87 black hole might look like. On that project, he worked with Avery Broderick, Ph.D., an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo who was involved with the M87 photograph.

“It looks very similar to the predictions that we have made,” says Loeb. “In a way, it’s reassuring and it’s gratifying to see that what we expected is indeed there.”

Here’s what Loeb and Broderick’s models looked like.

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