The world got a look Thursday at the first wild but fuzzy image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, and Chicago scientists helped make it happen.
The University of Chicago-affiliated South Pole Telescope was among the network of telescopes used to create the image via a global research team. It offered a unique viewing during the process, according to the university, thanks in part to its remote location.
“Scientists have been investigating the object at the center of our galaxy since I was a student decades ago, and it is exciting to be part of an experiment that can definitely image the black hole that we know must be there,” said University of Chicago Professor John Carlstrom, who directs the South Pole Telescope team. “These observations give us an unprecedented view of gravity in one of the most extreme environments in our universe. It’s very cool to have this remarkable image where we can see the shadow of the black hole.”
Astronomers believe nearly all galaxies, including our own, have these giant black holes at their center, where light and matter cannot escape, making it extremely hard to get images of them. Light gets chaotically bent and twisted around by gravity as it gets sucked into the abyss along with superheated gas and dust.
The colored image unveiled Thursday is from the international consortium behind the Event Horizon Telescope, a collection of eight synchronized radio telescopes around the world. Previous efforts had found the black hole in the center of our galaxy too jumpy to get a good picture.
The University of Arizona’s Feryal Ozel called the black hole “the gentle giant in the center of our galaxy” while announcing the breakthrough. Black holes gobble up galactic material but Ozel said this one is “eating very little.”
The Milky Way black hole is called Sagittarius A(asterisk), near the border of Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations. It is 4 million times more massive than our sun.
“When you first see it, it’s just this enormous feeling of, you know, wow, it’s physics works,” Carlstrom told NBC Chicago. “It works throughout the universe. And it’s just amazing, right? Black holes are very real and there’s one… really in the heart of our own galaxy.”
This is not the first black hole image. The same group released the first one in 2019 and it was from a galaxy 53 million light-years away. The Milky Way black hole is much closer, about 27,000 light-years away. A light year is 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion kilometers).
The project cost nearly $60 million with $28 million coming from the US National Science Foundation.
Carlstrom said the group’s next missing to provide a clearer image and possibly, eventually, a moving image.
“Next is to do even sharper images, try to go to a shorter wavelength,” he said. “It’s like adding new colors, and adding more telescopes to make even better images.”