Black Hole Picture of 2022 Is First Image of Milky Way’s Black Hole

Black Hole Picture of 2022 Is First Image of Milky Way’s Black Hole

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

Scientists took the first ever picture of a black hole in April 2019. The black hole lies at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87 (M87). But on May 12, 2022, scientists took the first ever picture of the black hole at the center of our own galaxy. Previously, scientists believed that the massive object at the center of the Milky Way was a black hole, but they couldn’t be sure. Now, we know for sure that this object is a black hole. This black hole picture of 2022 will make history like its 2019 counterpart.

Before the 2022 Black Hole Picture

Before scientists took the 2022 picture of the Milky Way’s black hole, they strongly believed that the object at the center of our galaxy was a black hole because of how stars orbit around it. The orbit of the star S2 was especially useful in classifying this object as a probable black hole. This object is invisible and has a very large mass. The black hole is called Sagittarius A* or Sgr A* (the asterisk is pronounced “star”). 

The reason why black holes have an asterisk at the ends of their names is because their discovery is exciting, like the excited states of atoms. The chemical symbols of excited atoms are written with an asterisk at the end (for example, excited helium would be written as He*). 

How Scientists Took the Black Hole Picture

Astronomers took the picture of Sgr A* with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a global network of radio satellites. The purpose of the EHT is to take pictures of black holes. It’s hard to take pictures of black holes because they’re invisible and so far away from Earth. When scientists take a picture of a black hole, it’s not actually the black hole we see, but the effects of the black hole’s gravity on the surrounding matter. The glowing gas surrounding a black hole is called an accretion disk. Because Sgr A* is located 25,640 light years from Earth, taking a picture of it from Earth is analogous to taking a picture of a doughnut on the Moon’s surface from Earth. It took 8 telescope observatories around the world to take a blurry picture of a black hole, which tells us how challenging it is to image black holes directly. 

It was much harder for astronomers to take a picture of Sgr A* than M87* (the black hole that astronomers took a picture of in 2019), even though Sgr A* is much closer to Earth than M87*. This is because the gas around Sgr A* orbits in a matter of minutes, while the gas around M87* orbits in a matter of days or weeks. This made it much harder to get a clearer image of Sgr A*. In order to get as clear a picture of Sgr A* as possible, scientists used supercomputers to simulate black holes, so they would know what Sgr A* is supposed to look like.

About the Milky Way’s Black Hole

Sgr A* is a supermassive black hole, which is the largest type of black hole that scientists currently know about. Supermassive black holes are probably at the center of every galaxy. Sgr A* is 4 million times heavier than the Sun and has a diameter of about 32.2 million miles (51.8 million kilometers). This is much larger than the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Despite it’s huge size, Sgr A* is still much smaller than M87*. However, these two black holes still look very similar, which means that Einstein’s theory of general relativity holds true for all black holes, no matter their size. 

A Historic Moment in Astronomy

A century ago, when Einstein published his general theory of relativity, black holes were just answers to math equations. They were hypothetical and astronomers didn’t even think they existed. Now, we know for sure that they exist because we have direct images of them. Maybe next, we’ll prove that wormholes and white holes exist. Wormholes, which are shortcuts in space and time, are similar to black holes but are still hypothetical. White holes are the opposite of black holes; instead of preventing any matter from escaping them, they prevent any matter from entering them. They’re the other solutions to Einstein’s general relativity equations. Like wormholes, they’re also hypothetical, and some scientists don’t think they exist in our universe. Who knows? Maybe the next historic images of “holes in spacetime” will be wormholes or white holes. 

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

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