There are plenty of mysteries that still shroud themselves in the cosmos, but one big question has finally been answered.
What does a black hole look like?
The Event Horizon Telescope group revealed that to us on Wednesday, with an image depicting a black, circular object surrounded by bright yellow and orange stellar material. That black circular object in question is the event horizon of the black hole, the point at which there is no escape for anything sucked in. Somewhere inside the event horizon, invisible to the naked eye, is what's called the singularity, where time and matter become ... well, let's just say super strange. No human will ever experience that and be able to report back. Probably.
This image is a momentous occasion, not just in the science community, but in human history. This is an image taken in incredible detail from far away. And all it took was a telescope network the size of Earth to bring it to our phone, tablet or computer screens.
As I pored through Twitter following the announcement, a clear majority of people on various news media outlets' postings was impressed by the news and the image. But there was still a group of people who seemed frustrated by the lack of image quality. "Why does it look so fuzzy?," they asked. "Who decided to take a blurry image of a glazed doughnut?," another similar line of thinking.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but these types of opinions are still frustrating to read.
Let me help put things in perspective. This black hole, located in the center of the M87 elliptical galaxy, is 53 million light years away.
Not miles. LIGHT YEARS.
Specifically, that would be 311,567,145,000,000,000,000 miles. A well and truly bonkers distance away. Use any adjective you like.
You try and take an ultra-sharp image of something that far away, even with a telescope the size of the Earth. Pretty hard.
I remember when the best photos we had of Pluto consisted of an orb covered in indecipherable black and yellow smears. That changed with New Horizons, and the photos of this and other black holes will get better when more telescopes are added to the array that got us the image of this one.
Secondly, what we are seeing is the actual edge of the black hole. It's not some bright ring with nothing in the middle (like a doughnut). It's not a smatter of bright material and the black hole is embedded in there somewhere. No, that black object in the middle is actually the black hole.
On a bit of a different note, it was a little surprising that the team decided to go with M87's black hole as the target. We have a nice, decent-sized one in the middle of our own galaxy, right?
Actually, it's pretty well understandable from this perspective: Sagittarius A* in the Milky Way is apparently shrouded by a bunch of material and is much smaller. M87* is much more massive (read: MUCH) and arguably a lot more interesting.
Adding to the above paragraph, I'll end with this: Scientists were able to confirm, using only the image they now have, that M87's black hole contains 6.5 BILLION solar masses. Not 3 billion, according to some prior estimates. But twice that.
If placed in our solar system, god forbid, it would be larger than the orbit of Pluto.
Think about that.